Continental Drift

In the 1960’s scientists perfected a theory about the continents on earth. They decided the great plates that make up the continents were not fixed, but rather were drifting. Drifting so much that at one time there had been only one super continent. They named this super continent Pangaea. In the interim, the geography of the world has drastically changed over long periods of time until now we have seven distinct continents. Actually six, Europe and Asia are considered separate continents, but are really one land mass.

Image made by Kieff, CC licence, Wikimedia.

Of course this is all theory, there’s no real way, at present at least, to absolutely prove any such thing really happened. But scientists have observed that the Atlantic Ocean gets a little bigger each year and the Pacific a little smaller, by a few millimeters. What put scientists onto the theory though was the coastlines of Africa and South America. They look like they ought to fit together.

There have been other clues supporting continental drift as well, including India pushing into Asia hard enough to form the Himalayas Mountains, the great rift valley in Africa, threatening to become the next continental split, and the great deep valleys and high mountain ranges of the oceans.  And there is some fossil evidence too.  Plants that were apparently all present in widely spaced continents in areas that have completely dissimilar climates today.

Printable Pangaea Flip Book

You can print out this Pangea Flip Book to color and assemble to see the continents drifting.

Pangea Flip Book1

A flip book makes pictures move, by flipping rapidly through the pages with your thumb on the edge of the sheets. It works best on stiff paper like card stock, but you can also use regular printer paper. Cut apart the sheets on the lines and line them up in order behind the title page. Staple the left side of the book and flip from front to back.

Additional Layers

  • Learn the difference between a scientific theory and a scientific law. A theory is based on observable and testable data and has been substantiated many times over.  It explains a general body of phenomenon, rather than one specific thing.  Theories try to explain the mechanism or the process that governs what we see around us in the physical world.  Plate techtonics is the overriding theory that explains everything about the way rocks and continents are formed.   A law on the other hand simply describes an observed phenomenon, without trying to connect causes and effects.  Neither a theory nor a law can be proved absolutely, such is the nature of science.  We can only say they have not yet been proven wrong.
  • Read more about Alfred Wegener. He came up with the idea of continental drift in 1912, but nobody paid it any attention until the 60’s.
  • The continents only move apart about 50 to 100 mm annually, that’s tiny. Geologists assume that the processes that are happening now are the same processes that happened at the same rate through all the history of the earth. First, do you think that’s a good assumption or a bad one? Why? Second, if this is true, how long ago was it that Africa and South America were actually touching. (assume the largest movement, 100 mm, and that the continents are 2848 km apart, an approximation)
  • The areas of the world with the most volcanic and earthquake activity are assumed to be the edges of the plates. They look like they fall on plate edges if you see an aerial map of them. Find out more about the earthquake and volcano zones. Do you live in or near one?
  • It’s pretty cool to imagine what it would be like on earth with only one big super continent, but think about the one big super ocean. Imagine what it would be like to try and cross it. Write or tell about the horrific voyage that would be.
  • Pan means all and gaea means earth. So now you know where the name Pangaea comes from. What would you name a continent that you discovered?
  • This activity and printable are also in Layers of Learning Unit 1-6, this is just a tiny taste of the smorgasbord that is our curriculum.




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