The Plate Tectonics Resistance

I shall leave Brexit aside today. I’ve had quite enough of it.

For the past year or so I’ve been thinking about ice ages, using the very simple idea that sheets of ice and snow act as thermal insulation on the surface of the Earth, causing it to warm, and to then melt the overlying ice.

It’s an idea that is a little akin to the theory of Plate Tectonics, which is that the continents on the surface of the Earth act like the foam on top of a stirred cup of cappuccino coffee, parting and merging as they move on the currents beneath them.

In school Geography lessons in the early 1960s we were not taught this theory, largely because it only became current in the late 1960s. It was a very new idea. And as soon as I heard of it I became an instant believer.

Why? Because it was a Big Idea, an all-embracing, captivating idea, and also  a very simple idea. All you needed to understand Plate Tectonics was a cappuccino coffee and a spoon, and you’ll soon be seeing Africa and America and Australia moving round and round, with black coffee oceans opening up and closing between the whirling foam continents.

And it seems that it was such a simple and plausible and obvious idea that it completely captured Geology in the space of a couple of decades. It was Wegener’s 1920 idea of continental drift, but with the continents now being powered by convection currents deep inside the mantle of the Earth. Plate Tectonics seems to have swept Geology like Hernán Cortés swept the Aztec Empire in the two years between 1519 and 1521. It seems to have prefigured the very similar capture of Climatology by the Global Warmers and their invincible carbon dioxide a couple of decades later.

Were there any Plate Tectonic sceptics? Did everyone become true believers in Plate Tectonics?

It seems that the Russians in the Soviet Union were deeply sceptical about the theory of Plate Tectonics (and maybe many still are). But it seems that elsewhere there slowly emerged an organised opposition to Plate Tectonics:

…in the 1950s and 60s the new theory of Plate Tectonics was propounded
by “Geophysicists” (Physicists) and mainly young Geologists with little experience, depth of understanding or respect for existing geology. The theory, although admittedly simplistic and with little factual basis but claiming to be all embracing, was pursued by its proponents in an aggressive, intolerant, dogmatic and sometimes unfortunately an unscrupulous fashion. Most geologists with knowledge based locally or regionally were not confident in dealing with a new global theory which swept the world and was attractive in giving Geology a prestige not equalled since the nineteenth century.

So Plate Tectonics was the invasion of Geology by the all-conquering army of Physics. The geologists, with their little hammers and collections of rock samples, had about as much hope of defeating the Geophysicists as the Aztecs had of defeating Cortés.

All these new Big Ideas always seem to be “aggressive, intolerant, dogmatic and unscrupulous.” The doctrine that Smoking Causes Lung Cancer was another aggressive, intolerant, dogmatic, and unscrupulous idea that began to sweep the world in the 1950s. And Global Warming is another aggressive, intolerant, dogmatic, and unscrupulous idea that gained currency in the 1990s. And it seems that the proponents of Plate Tectonics in the 1960s were just as nasty.

The geological resistance movement to Plate Tectonics, which seems to have gradually mounted over the decades subsequent to the 1960s, now seems to find its expression in New Concepts In Global Tectonics, which has been publishing papers and journals since about 1998, all critical of Plate Tectonics in one way or other.

Some of their criticisms include:

  1. Subduction: The volume of crust generated at ocean ridges is supposed to be equalled by the volume subducted. But the ocean ridge system is allegedly producing new crust along a total length of 2 x 74,000 km, whereas there are about 43,500 km of trenches and 9000 km of “collision zones” – or a third of the amount of “spreading centres”.
  2. Subduction: How ocean crust can be thrust down into the denser mantle has never been satisfactorily explained. An analysis of the mechanics of subduction suggests that it could probably never have started, let alone continued (James, 2000).
  3. Hotspots: Hotspots are commonly attributed to “mantle plumes” rising from the core-mantle boundary. Sheth (1999) showed that plume explanations are ad hoc, artificial, and inadequate, and that plumes are not required by any geological evidence. A mantle plume from a deep hotspot would broaden upward as a result of drag forces, and would attain a surface width of several hundred kilometres, far beyond oceanic island dimensions.
  4. India and Tethys *: There is overwhelming geological and palaeontological evidence that India has been an integral part of Asia since at least mid-Proterozoic time (Chatterjee and Hotton, 1986; Ahmad, 1990; Saxena et al., 1985; Saxena & Gupta, 1990; Meyerhoff et al., 1991). Yet on the basis of palaeomagnetic data and marine magnetic anomalies, plate tectonicists claim that India detached itself from Antarctica sometime during the Mesozoic, and then drifted northeastward up to 7500 km, at speeds of up to 18 cm/yr, until it finally collided with Asia in the Eocene (55 Ma), pushing up the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau.

I’m rather struck by the thought that, while we can apparently see 13.4 billion light years out into space (one light year = 9,460,730,500,000 kms), we can’t see further than 12.2 kilometres into the Earth beneath our feet. So our beliefs about the interior of the Earth, including the supposed convection currents within the mantle of the Earth, are all at best educated guesses, and at worst wild speculation. For nobody has been there and measured the temperatures, or brought back samples of mantle or core, like Cortés brought back the products of Mexico to Spain.

About Frank Davis

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14 Responses to The Plate Tectonics Resistance

  1. RdM says:

    From time to time I remember to look at Malaga Bay again, but your post reminded me of similar topics there;- I’d scroll way down these results of an overview before I opened in a new tab;-

    https://malagabay.wordpress.com/?s=plate+tectonics

    Hopefully of some help, or interest.

    • RdM says:

      I’d scroll way down these results of an overview before I opened in a new tab;-
      Misdirection. Even the first ones are good, or at least interesting;-

  2. petesquiz says:

    Like you, I am a fan of the Plate Tectonic theory and it does seem to explain many things. But, it is only a theory, and it looks as though there’s a healthy debate about some of the finer points of the theory. As I recall, this is how science is supposed to work, to refine the theory closer to reality. If only the climate debate was so scientific in its conduct!

    With regard to your theory of ice ages and the heat from within the earth being a significant factor, I’m still sceptical, but I certainly wouldn’t dismiss it as a factor. I’d be very interested to ask a climate scientist what the Earth’s climate would be like if the core temperature of the Earth was, say, 50°C.

    Personally, I think that the biggest factor in determining the climate here on Earth is the Sun.

    • Frank Davis says:

      I’d be very interested to ask a climate scientist what the Earth’s climate would be like if the core temperature of the Earth was, say, 50°C.

      I don’t know for sure, but from what I’ve read they seem to discount the existing 60 milliWatt heat flow as insignificant, so I imagine that they’d say that it would be even more insignificant if the core temperature of the Earth was 50 deg C.

  3. beobrigitte says:

    For the past year or so I’ve been thinking about ice ages, using the very simple idea that sheets of ice and snow act as thermal insulation on the surface of the Earth, causing it to warm, and to then melt the overlying ice.
    This could also provide an explanation as to why the surface of the Jupiter moon Europa looks like the ice has cracks in it and that underneath the ice on the surface there is thought to be liquid water.

    Slightly smaller than Earth’s Moon, Europa’s water-ice surface is crisscrossed by long, linear fractures. Like our planet, Europa is thought to have an iron core, a rocky mantle and an ocean of salty water. Unlike Earth, however, Europa’s ocean lies below a shell of ice probably 10 to 15 miles (15 to 25 kilometers) thick and has an estimated depth of 40 to 100 miles (60 to 150 kilometers).
    https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/moons/jupiter-moons/europa/in-depth/

    On planet earth perhaps Greenland’s ice sheet may provide answers. I have tried to find data on ground temperatures over time underneath this ice sheet. I was not successful.
    However, watching a documentary about the last ice-age, in particular how the “drumlins” in and around Glasgow were formed, leads to consider a moving ice sheet which is contributed to melt water. The latter I am not too sure due to the ice thickness. Wouldn’t melt water from the top of the ice sheet running along crevasses freeze again, hence not be the “lubricant” that caused movement of the ice sheet?

    • Frank Davis says:

      I started off, a year back, looking at ice-covered asteroids with radioactive “granite” mixed with the snow, and managed to melt snow, forming asteroids with granite cores and water layers above the granite, and thick layers of ice on top.

      But I don’t really know how to model convective heat flow in water, so at the moment with my Earth model I’m just looking at conductive heat flow inside the Earth, with radiative heat transfers in a fairly simple atmosphere.

      It’s hard to find data on temperatures beneath Greenland ice. I’ve tried to find something on that too.

      As for surface melt water, it seems to form “moulins” which are waterfalls through the ice. The crack or “crevasses” can be quite large, so the water can get to the base of the glaciers.

      I’ve also read that in Antarctica it’s believed that nearly all the ice sheets are on the move because of melting at the base of them, but also because of frictional heating as they move (at speeds in the order of one kilometre per year (or maybe 1 km/century)) toward the coasts.

      • beobrigitte says:

        As for surface melt water, it seems to form “moulins” which are waterfalls through the ice. The crack or “crevasses” can be quite large, so the water can get to the base of the glaciers.
        I agree, I wrote my comment in the end too simplistic. Of course time, increasing surface temperature thus increasing amount of water, surface consistency etc.etc. need to be factored in.
        Next task would be finding out at what point in time of the great thaw the ice began to move.

        • Frank Davis says:

          I don’t think the ice sheets have to melt in order to move. As I said, Antarctic ice seems to be on the move everywhere, but only because of melting at the base, not because the ice sheets are melting throughout.

          In my model, I’m not looking at moving ice sheets, I think there must be a lot of circumstances where ice doesn’t move – for example where it’s hemmed in by mountains all around it, which I believe is the case in most of Greenland.

  4. ianl says:

    https://wattsupwiththat.com/2019/01/03/the-nantroseize-project-drilling-through-a-plate-boundary-in-an-active-subduction-zone/?cn-reloaded=1

    I’m a geologist with over 40 years at the faces, including academia.

    Please read through the linked article and especially the linked published peer-reviewed papers. One might hope that the drill hole (and such a mighty drill hole) is eventually successful – and the Japanese can make some useful predictions on tremors/eruptions from this new information.

    While tectonics is accurately classified as a theory (not now merely an hypothesis), my considerable experience has shown me that if one can accurately describe the current tectonic settings in any one location, accurate predictions based on tectonic theory of geological conditions outside known exploration boundaries are very likely.

    I appreciate that you are looking for an analogy to “smoking causes cancer” – but plate tectonics is not it.

    • beobrigitte says:

      I appreciate that you are looking for an analogy to “smoking causes cancer” – but plate tectonics is not it.
      In a sense it is: provide the world with a simplistic model of anything (correct or incorrect) and it is widely accepted.

      This year, the Nankai Trough Seismogenic Zone Experiment (NanTroSEIZE) began drilling into the fault. It is the “first [expedition] to drill, sample and instrument the earthquake-causing, or seismogenic portion of Earth’s crust, where violent, large-scale earthquakes have occurred repeatedly throughout history,” according to the mission’s website. Rocks collected next year will be analyzed to see how slippery or solid they are, allowing researchers to “understand more about the conditions that might lead to an earthquake on these type of fault,” wrote team member John Bedford of the University of Liverpool on the expedition’s blog.
      (refer to link posted by ianl above)
      I surely hope there will be updates and data collected published.

      The plate tectonic theory makes sense. Best examples 2018: Increased seismic activity in the alps, Mount Kilauea in Hawai and the Öræfajökull volcano in iceland. “Smoking causes cancer” does not make sense in that:
      1. a multitude of things need to go wrong for a cancer (which we all are thought to “produce” numerous times in our lives) to actually establish itself.
      2. There is never a single cause for any cancer.
      3. Whilst “the science is settled” cancer will continue to exist as all the factors combined causing this illness are ignored.

    • Frank Davis says:

      I took a quick glance at your linked article. Drilling a hole into a subduction zone would be a very interesting project. But since the subducted material is on the move, I imagine the drill hole wouldn’t last for very long.

      I’m not actually looking for an analogy with antismoking. I was just interested to learn that Plate Tectonics seems to have become accepted after Geology got overrun by (Geo)physicists. And all that would have probably happened before your time, if you started off 40 years ago, 10 or 20 years after the Plate Tectonics revolution.

      P.S. I agree with Petesquiz above that it’s a healthy debate that includes sceptics, although I’m not sure that Plate Tectonic sceptics, actually do get much of a hearing.

      • ianl says:

        >” I imagine the drill hole wouldn’t last for very long.”

        it doesn’t have to, Frank. That’s why it’s being logged with every tool we know of. My fear is that the hole, once it penetrates the fault zones (IF it penetrates these zones), won’t stay open long enough for the logging to be properly completed., We’ll just have to see – the Japanese understandably have a lot riding on it.

        Your assumption that I’m too young to have been exposed to non-Plate theory is wrong. Different hypotheses are pushed all the time – it’s a very dynamic area. (I understand that most of the populace are truly ignorant of geoscience and have no wish to change that). It is my empirical experience that the complexity of Plate Tectonics, despite the number of unknowns, has proved worth as a tool to aid prediction, so for this purpose I use it as a framework. Too many poor predictions will see me alter this.

        As for geophysics, it is part of geoscience and is as subject to influence and correction by interpretative geologists as is the reverse. Again, a very dynamic field, full of challenge and interest.

  5. Philip Neal says:

    Plate tectonics was the scientific sensation of my boyhood and I have always found it enchanting. How do the new sceptics explain

    a) the paleontological evidence (e.g. glossopteris)
    b) the stratigraphic evidence (the beautiful fit between the British and North American structures of the Paleozoic but not the Mesozoic), and
    c) ancient polar wandering.

    It is not entirely true that Wegener’s ideas were dismissed entirely until the 1960s. The British geologist Arthur Holmes, who first estimated the age of the earth by isotopes, took it seriously. If Russia and America ignored it, that may be because drift explains a host of problems associated with continental margins and is nearly irrelevant to the heartlands of the continents.

    It should be said that there have been major advances in mantle geology in recent years, and the details of a theory are always subject to change.

    • Frank Davis says:

      I have no idea how the sceptics explain things. I only discovered that there actually were any sceptics a day or two ago.

      I suspect that the Russians ignored Plate Tectonics because they were behind the Iron Curtain, and were largely insulated from such ideas, and were sceptical about them as soon as they heard of them.

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