03/08/2000 08:00:00

East and West Antarctica once began separating but then stopped, new research shows

PASADENA—Earth was well on its way to having two Antarcticas long ago, but a tectonic separation between the eastern and western portions of the continent suddenly stopped after 17 million years of spreading, researchers say.

In the March 9 issue of Nature, lead author Steve Cande of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Joann Stock of Caltech, and their colleagues in Australia and Japan report that the rift between East and West Antarctica began about 43 million years ago, then ended 17 million years later, after the seafloor had spread about 180 kilometers. The researchers discovered the motion after making several cruises over a period of years in the waters off the Antarctic coast and after gathering data on the seafloor itself.

"The two pieces of Antarctica pulled apart and then stopped," says Stock, a professor of geology and geophysics at Caltech. "If it had kept on going, there would eventually have been two Antarcticas."

The primary scientific value of the study is that it answers some nagging questions about the "missing" motion in the Antarctic region. For a variety of reasons, geophysicists have had a hard time getting a handle on the precise directions and amounts of motion there, and how the motion fits into the grand scheme of global plate tectonics.

"It's like a jigsaw puzzle," Stock says. "You have to know how one piece moved relative to the other pieces to understand how it all fits together.

"A lot of the tectonic plate history for western North America, for example, depends on what happened in Antarctica. You wouldn't think so, but that's the way plate tectonic movements work."

The key to the new results was the researchers' discovery of an underwater feature off Cape Adare that they have named the Adare Trough. This trough is about 230 kilometers long and runs roughly northwest-southeast near the 170th meridian. The sharp break in the direction of the magnetic lines on either side of the trough allows the researchers to infer the ancient relative motions of the plates, and the age and shape of the trough and seafloor around it indicates the period when the spreading occurred.

Seafloor spreading in the area accounts for the "missing" motion in the plate circuit linking the Australia, Antarctic, and Pacific plates, the researchers also found. Too, the 180-kilometer-wide zone of extension is most likely related to the uplift that has occurred in the Transantarctic Mountains to the west, and explains other geological features that have hitherto been puzzling.

And finally, the new results could shed new light on global issues such as the motion between hotspots in the Pacific and Indo-Atlantic oceans.

In addition to Cande and Stock, the other authors are Dietmar Müller of the University of Sidney and Takemi Ishihara of the Geological Survey of Japan.

Written by Robert Tindol