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Surprising Science

The Beginning Of The End Of The Atlantic Ocean

Scientists have detected fracturing of the ocean floor near the Iberian peninsula, signaling the movement of tectonic plates that could eventually close the distance between North America and continental Europe.

What’s the Latest Development?

A new paper recently published in Geology notes the discovery of a subduction zone — an area “where one of the tectonic plates that cover the Earth’s surface dives beneath another plate” into the layer just below the planet’s crust — forming off the southwest coast of Portugal, signaling the possible start of a new geological cycle that will see the Atlantic Ocean shrink as Europe moves closer to North America. Lead author and Monash University geosciences professor João Duarte says that his team mapped the ocean floor and noticed that it was beginning to fracture, confirming suspicions that the tectonic activity that caused the 1755 earthquake that destroyed Lisbon “[is] also a consistent driving mechanism.”

What’s the Big Idea?

Over the more than four billion years of the Earth’s existence, continents have merged, broken up, and recombined at least three times. This discovery could give scientists new insights into how land masses and oceans evolved. Duarte says the new subduction zone is “embryonic,” which is apt considering geologic time: It will take about 20 million years for the plate margin to become fully active, and a New York-Paris walking trail isn’t expected to form for another 220 million years.

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