Supercontinent Revolution

October 14, 2015

Professor of geology at Curtin University Dr Zheng-Xiang Li, an authority on supercontinents.

Professor of geology at Curtin University Dr Zheng-Xiang Li considers himself a very lucky man. Born in a village in Shandong Province, East China, he fondly remembers the rock formations in the surrounding hills. But he was at school during the end of the Cultural Revolution – a time when academic pursuit was frowned upon and it was very hard to find good books to read. “Fortunately, I had some very good teachers who encouraged my curiosity,” recalls Li.

He went on to secure a place at the prestigious Peking University to study geology and geophysics. And in 1984, when China’s then leader Deng Xiaoping sent a select number of students overseas, Li took the opportunity to study for a PhD in Australia. With an interest in plate tectonics and expertise in palaeomagnetism, he’s since become an authority on supercontinents.

It is widely accepted that the tectonic plates – which carry the continents – are moving, and that a supercontinent, Pangaea, existed 320–170 million years ago. Li’s research
is aimed at understanding how ‘Earth’s engine’ drives the movement of the plates.

His work has been highly influential, showing that another supercontinent, Rodinia, formed about 600 million years before Pangaea. And evidence is mounting that there was yet another ancient supercontinent before that, known as Nuna, which assembled about 1600 million years ago.

Li suspects there is a cycle wherein supercontinents break up and their components then disperse around the globe, before once again coming together as a new supercontinent.

“The supercontinent cycle is probably around 600 million years. We are in the middle of a cycle: halfway between Pangaea and a fresh supercontinent,” he says.

“We are at the start of another geological revolution. Plate tectonics revolutionised geology in the 1960s. I think we are now in the process of another revolution,” Li adds, undoubtedly excited by his work.

“The meaning of life can be described by three words beginning with ‘F’ – family, friends and fun,” he says. “And for me, work falls in the fun part.”

Clare Pain

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