Map of Pangea reveals which countries were neighbors 300 million years ago

Enter an ancient version of Earth, where Santa Claus lives in South Korea, Cuba is land-locked, and Antarctica and India share the same climate.

'Pangea Politico' by Massimo Pietrobon.
'Pangea Politico' by Massimo Pietrobon.

Trivia nights would have been a lot easier 300 million years ago. In the Early Permian Epoch, Earth had one just one ocean, Panthalassa, with one massive supercontinent in it, Pangea.

Pangea is just one of several supercontinents our planet has created over its 3.5 billion year history. They form as Earth's tectonic plates slide over its mantle, a process that breaks up landmasses and reforms them in new combinations—which is why geologists just found a chunk of Canada sticking to Australia, or why fossils of Lystrosaurus, a stocky, pig-like reptile, are found in the very separate locations of Antarctica, India and South Africa, and nowhere else. The slow grind of continents is imperceptible to us, but it is happening right this minute. “Continents on these plates typically move, I would say, at the rate your fingernails grow," geologist Ross Mitchell tells NPR.

Where were we 300 million years ago?

Absolutely nowhere—life on Pangea was human-free (pause for wistful thinking), but when we puzzle-fit the modern continents back to where they were 300 million years ago, it reveals how your country may have shared its borders with some very different neighbors.

This conceptual map called 'Pangea Politico' was designed by amateur cartographer Massimo Pietrobon to show how different the world would be if Pangea hadn't broken up some 200 million years ago. Pietrobon's map is more about politics than total geological accuracy, so the scales of some nations aren't perfect, but it shows the approximate location of how our modern world sat atop the old tectonic plate arrangement.


To zoom, click the map. Image credit: Massimo Pietrobon.

With great gusto, Pietrobon describes an ancient world where America and Russia are cozier neighbors, Santa Claus lives in South Korea, Cuba is land-locked, and Antarctica and India share the same climate. As translated (imperfectly) from Italian:

“And so the United States find themselves in front of the muzzle all the Arabs, while in the south they border directly with both Cuba and Colombia!
We Europeans, on the other hand, find Africa at home at last. Enough of the thousands of deaths at sea to get to Europe, now they get there by bike!
Again, finally, African Americans get together with their African cousins tout-court and can visit them by bus.
Not only that, the Moroccans will finally lead to Quebec on foot!"

'Pangea Politico' makes a timely and ultimately humanitarian statement about our borders and political feuds. “Gathering the world in one piece of land represents a return to the unity of the planet, to the unity of the human race, in spite of the divisions that are so convenient for our rulers!" writes Pietrobon.

Taking a long view of geology results in the same epiphany astronauts experience when they look at our pale blue dot from way out there. As Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell famously said: “From out there on the moon, international politics looks so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch."

Where will we be 250 million years from now?

So we've seen the past in Pangea. What about the future? Current plate movements are slowly reshaping the world once again. Africa is on a collision course with southern Europe, as is the Australian Plate with Southeast Asia. Over the next 250 million years, it's very likely Earth will form another supercontinent of epic proportions, although experts disagree on exactly how it will come together—will it be Amasia, Pangea Proxima, or Novopangaea? Whether that landmass is a human-free place too is anyone's guess, but if so, let's hope it's for the right reasons and not the wrong ones.


Amasia forming over the North Pole. Source: Yale University, Nature

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

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Photo by Reinhart Julian on Unsplash
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