Every so often, a scientist proposes a theory so crazy their fellow scientists dismiss the idea immediately. But sometimes that theory is just crazy enough to prove true.
Such was the case in 1982 when Dr. Damian Nance, Distinguished Professor of Geological Sciences, and a colleague proposed their theory of a supercontinent cycle – that the course of Earth history had been governed by the formation, break up and reformation of supercontinents. The science community scoffed and all but wrote the pair off. Until then, conventional thinking held that there had been only one supercontinent – Pangaea – a theory that, ironically, was also scoffed in 1912 when posited by German geophysicist Alfred Wegener. In contrast, Nance and his colleague suggested that before Pangaea there were as many as four or five supercontinents.
They argued that a supercontinent cycle would be evident in episodic peaks in mountain building and continental rifting as continents came together and then broke up. So they studied the timing of mountains and fractures in the Earth’s crust and the geologic record of granite formation from the rising and cooling of magma, to see how the Earth has been shaped and reshaped over time, and found that this history had been indeed episodic. They also looked for, and found, evidence of tectonic activity dominated by uplift as the trapped mantle heat accumulated under the supercontinent, ultimately contributing to its break up.
This cyclical creation and break-up of supercontinents is fundamental to Earth’s geological processes and builds on the theory of plate tectonics. Plate tectonics tells scientists how things happen, but the supercontinent cycle can explain things happen – which may help predict broad Earth processes and allow scientists to discriminate between natural cycles of climate change versus man-made ones, Nance says.
“The recognition that Earth history has been punctuated by supercontinents, the assembly and breakup of which have profoundly influenced the evolution of the solid Earth, oceans, atmosphere and biosphere, is arguably the most important development in Earth Science since the advent of plate tectonics,” said Nance.
Despite the ensuing controversy, Nance and his colleague continued to build their case for the cyclical formation and break up of supercontinents with a decade of study, travel, published papers and presentations. Their perseverance paid off in the 1990’s when further evidence supporting their claims began to emerge, causing skeptics to reexamine beliefs and eventually declare the supercontinent cycle to be one of the most important revelations of our time.
In early 2014, a summary paper by Nance and others was named one of the Top 25 publications in the history of the influential journal , (Gondwana being a former supercontinent).
Nance has won numerous awards and has toured as a distinguished lecturer for the Atlantic Provinces Intercollegiate Council for the Sciences. He has served as a peer review panelist for the Department of Energy and a research adviser for Argonne National Laboratories. He serves as editor of Lithosphere, is a past editor of and is an Associate Editor of and . In 2014 he was elected Fellow of the Geological Society of America.
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