Article image

New model reveals the evolution of the Earth’s surface

The Earth’s surface has been sculpted over vast periods of time by climate, tectonics, and the flow of myriad rivers that transported tons of sediments into the oceans. This highly dynamic, constantly changing process is still far from being perfectly understood. However, a team of geoscientists led by the University of Sydney in Australia has now designed a detailed and dynamic model of our planet’s surface over the past 100 million years, providing a high-resolution view of how today’s geophysical landscapes were created.

“To predict the future, we must understand the past. But our geological models have only provided a fragmented understanding of how our planet’s recent physical features formed,” said study lead author Tristan Salles, a geoscientist at Sydney.

“If you look for a continuous model of the interplay between river basins, global-scale erosion and sediment deposition at high resolution for the past 100 million years, it just doesn’t exist. So, this is a big advance. It’s not only a tool to help us investigate the past but will help scientists understand and predict the future as well.”

By using a framework incorporating geodynamics, tectonic, and climate forces with surface processes, the experts created a new dynamic model of the past 100 million years at high resolution – down to 10 kilometers – split into frames of a million years each. 

“This unprecedented high-resolution model of Earth’s recent past will equip geoscientists with a more complete and dynamic understanding of the Earth’s surface. Critically, it captures the dynamics of sediment transfer from the land to oceans in a way we have not previously been able to,” explained study co-author Laurent Husson, a geologist and geophysicist at the Institute of Earth Sciences in Grenoble, France.

According to the researchers, better understanding the flow of terrestrial sediment to marine environments is crucial to comprehend current ocean chemistry, which is now changing rapidly due to anthropogenic global warming.

This new model will allow scientists to test different hypotheses about how the Earth’s surface will respond to changing climate and tectonic factors, while clarifying how the transportation of Earth sediment regulates our planet’s carbon cycle over millions of years.

“Our findings will provide a dynamic and detailed background for scientists in other fields to prepare and test hypotheses, such as in biochemical cycles or in biological evolution,” Salles concluded.

The study is published in the journal Science. Animated models of landscape dynamics and photos can be downloaded here.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day