An illustration of a hidden layer found beneath Earth's plate tectonics. YAYIMAGES.

Earth’s plate tectonics recently underwent a fundamental change

Earth is the only planet in our solar system with both abundant life and plate tectonics.


According to a recent study, Earth’s plate tectonics recently underwent a fundamental change.

Distinguishing our planet from its celestial neighbors, Earth is the only planet in our solar system with both abundant life and plate tectonics. These tectonic movements have sculpted the face of the planet, influenced the climate, and potentially even directed the trajectory of life’s evolution. A revolutionary study recently conducted by the University of Copenhagen suggests a shift in our understanding of this unique geological process.

Discovering a Dual-Layered Approach to Plate Tectonics

The concept of plate tectonics revolves around the interactions and movements of tectonic plates on Earth’s surface, facilitated by the slow convective motion of the mantle. This process, which dates back to the Earth’s formation 4.5 billion years ago, is believed to encompass the entire mantle.

When tectonic plates clash at the Earth’s surface, one relents, plunging into the hot mantle. This plate ultimately settles in a metaphorical plate graveyard above the planet’s metallic core. The latest findings, however, suggest that this mechanism of plate tectonics is a recent addition to Earth’s extensive geological timeline.

Novel Insights into the Earth’s Mantle

Zhengbin Deng, a former assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen and lead author of the study, posits, “For the majority of Earth’s history, the mantle’s convection was segregated into two distinct layers: the upper and lower mantle. These layers were largely independent of each other.”


This separation is believed to occur approximately 660 km below Earth’s surface, where certain minerals undergo a phase transition. The team hypothesizes that this transition could explain why the upper and lower mantle regions remained largely distinct.

“Previously, the recycling and mixing of subducted plates into the mantle were confined to the upper mantle, demonstrating robust convection. This varies greatly from our current understanding of plate tectonics, where we believe subducting plates descend to the lower mantle,” explains associate professor Martin Schiller, another contributor to the study.

A Revolutionary Methodology

To substantiate their assertions, the research team pioneered a new technique to make ultra-high precision measurements of the isotopic composition of titanium in various rocks. The isotopic makeup of titanium shifts when the Earth’s crust is formed, rendering it an effective tracer for tracking how surface material has been recycled into the Earth’s mantle over time. This method revealed the composition of mantle rocks, ranging from 3.8 billion years old to present-day lavas.

Unearthing Ancient Secrets

As the study suggests, the lower mantle could house undisturbed primordial material if the recycling and mixing of tectonic plates were indeed confined to the upper mantle. This primordial mantle would be a cache of mantle material that has remained relatively unchanged since the early stages of the Earth’s formation, roughly 4.5 billion years ago.

The possibility of a primordial reservoir nestled in the deep Earth isn’t new, yet this new perspective, provided by the titanium isotopic data, may offer fresh insight into this ongoing debate.


Professor Martin Bizzarro, a fellow author of the study, sums up, “Our new titanium isotope data provides a robust tool to discern which modern deep-seated volcanoes sample Earth’s primordial mantle. This discovery is thrilling as it offers a glimpse into our planet’s original composition, potentially identifying the origin of Earth’s volatiles that were essential for the development of life.”

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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