1.7-Billion-Year-Old Chunk of North America Found Sticking to Australia

This diagram shows the Georgetown terrane, in green, joining Australia around 1.6 billion years ago during the formation of the supercontinent Nuna.
This diagram shows the Georgetown terrane, in green, joining Australia around 1.6 billion years ago during the formation of the supercontinent Nuna. (Image credit: Geology, https://doi.org/10.1130/G39980.1)

Geologists matching rocks from opposite sides of the globe have found that part of Australia was once attached to North America 1.7 billion years ago.

Researchers from Curtin University in Australia examined rocks from the Georgetown region of northern Queensland. The rocks — sandstone sedimentary rocks that formed in a shallow sea — had signatures that were unknown in Australia but strongly resembled rocks that can be seen in present-day Canada.

The researchers, who described their findings online Jan. 17 in the journal Geology, concluded that the Georgetown area broke away from North America 1.7 billion years ago. Then, 100 million years later, this landmass collided with what is now northern Australia, at the Mount Isa region. [Photo Timeline: How the Earth Formed]

"This was a critical part of global continental reorganization when almost all continents on Earth assembled to form the supercontinent called Nuna," Adam Nordsvan, Curtin University doctoral student and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

Nordsvan added that Nuna then broke apart some 300 million years later, with the Georgetown area stuck to Australia as the North American landmass drifted away.

These rocks found around Georgetown, Australia, are made from sediments originally deposited off the coast of present-day Canada. (Image credit: Geology, https://doi.org/10.1130/G39980.1)

The continents as we know them today have shifted places throughout Earth's 4-billion-year history. Most recently, these landmasses came together to form the supercontinent known as Pangaea about 300 million years ago. Geologists are still trying to reconstruct how even earlier supercontinents assembled and broke apart before Pangaea. Scientists first proposed the existence of Nuna, Earth's first supercontinent, in 2002. Nuna is sometimes called Columbia.

Previous research suggested that northeast Australia was near North America, Siberia or North China when the continents came together to form Nuna, Nordsvan and colleagues noted, but scientists had yet to find solid evidence of this relationship.

Colliding landmasses can form mountain ranges. For example, the clash of the continental plates of India and Asia about 55 million years ago created the Himalayas. The researchers of the new study say they found evidence of mountains forming when Georgetown rammed into the rest of Australia.

"Ongoing research by our team shows that this mountain belt, in contrast to the Himalayas, would not have been very high, suggesting the final continental assembling process that led to the formation of the supercontinent Nuna was not a hard collision like India's recent collision with Asia,"Zheng-Xiang Li, a co-author of the study and a professor of Earth science at Curtin University, said in the statement.

Original article on Live Science.

Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and Space.com since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.