The extreme elevation of Tibet has affected atmospheric circulation over much of Asia, perhaps influencing not only the development of the Asian monsoon but also the formation of the Sahara and even the onset of Northern Hemisphere glaciations. The extensive high ground in western North America may have played a similar role, but other tectonic events, such as the closing of the Panama Isthmus and the Zagros Ocean, have modified oceanic circulation and may have been more significant. Both kinds of major barriers to warm equatorial circulation would have generated profound climatic and environmental changes within the past 15-million-years. Recognition of tectonic influences on the evolution of the Earth's climate demonstrates the potential for intellectual breakthroughs resulting from the study of the earth system.

Continental collision is a major research interest in the solid-earth sciences. Although most attention focuses on the active Alpine/Himalayan belt, older collisions, especially those recorded in the ancient Precambrian rocks, yield complementary information. Rocks from high-temperature and high-pressure environments buried deep within the modern mountain chains are preserved and well exposed for study at the surface in the old belts. Traditionally, these provocative exposures provide both information and inspiration to earth scientists.

Growth of the Continents Through Time

Much research remains to be undertaken to test and modify the simple picture of continents assembled by the process of arc collision and modified by the cordilleran, continental collisional, impact, hotspot, rifting, flooding, and erosional processes. Establishment of the history of the continents through time will provide an important test of how they have evolved.

Additions to the continental crust are known to have occurred throughout recorded geological time, from about 4-billion-years ago to the present. With the average age of continental surface rocks around 2-billion-years, and with a wide variety of ages spanning most of recorded time, it seems possible that the continental crust has grown in volume through the history of the Earth. However, the details of this growth are still uncertain, and determination of a crustal volume versus age curve is of considerable importance for understanding the Earth's evolution. There is geological and geochemical evidence suggestive of periods of enhanced crustal growth, although this picture may be clouded by the geographically patchy distribution of the data. Large volumes of continental crust give isotopic signatures indicating that the material from which they formed became fractionated from the mantle (by the processes of partial melting that take place at divergent plate boundaries and beneath volcanic arcs) relatively recently. For example, much of the crystalline basement of Arabia, Egypt, and eastern Sudan formed from the mantle some 600 million to 900-million-years ago. Estimates of the present-day rate of crustal addition in island arcs fall short of the rate of average growth of the continents (about 2 km3/year, a figure obtained by dividing the present volume of the continents by the age of the Earth). If island arc addition has been the main way of making continents, rates must have been far higher in the past.

We have a clear picture of the present distribution of continental material today in the large bodies of Eurasia, Africa, North and South America, Australia, and Antarctica and in smaller objects like Greenland, New Zealand, Madagascar, Japan, and the Seychelles. The motions of these fragments over the past 200-million-years since Pangea began to break up are reasonably well known from the history of the intervening ocean basins. Some idea of how continental fragments were assembled into Pangea, between the assembly of Gondwanaland about 600-million-years ago and its final collision with Laurasia about 290-million-years ago, has also emerged, but no clear picture has yet been obtained of how continental material was distributed about the surface in earlier times. Ancient latitudinal indicators for these older times have provided a confused picture.

Determining when and how all the pieces of all the continents were formed and how they came to be in their present positions is proving a substantial research exercise. It looks as though the greater part of North America was assembled into one piece by 1.7-billion-years ago, but Asia is a continent put together only within the past 600-million-years. We do not yet know whether these temporal and geographic differences record stochastic operation of plate tectonic processes or whether they reflect systematic changes in the Earth's behavior in space and time.

The central part of North America—with perhaps 75 percent of the present continental area—was put together long ago. Establishing a subsequent history dominated by the peripheral addition of relatively small exotic blocks and fragments is an active research frontier. Questions such as where the blocks came from and how they were incorporated into North America are rendered more challenging

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