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The surprising lubricant allowing mountains to rise


Researchers from the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom have uncovered how prehistoric plankton played a part in the formation of Earth’s greatest mountain ranges.

Professor of geology John Parnell played a part in a paper titled, Increased biomass and carbon burial 2 billion years ago triggered mountain building, along with his colleague Connor Brolly.

The pair investigated how an explosion of plankton life around two billion years ago led to the first widespread mountains relatively soon after.

As is widely understood, mountain ranges are formed by the collision of tectonic plates where one is forced atop another and slowly rises above the sea over time.

Parnell’s article in The Conversation discussed the existence of fossilised sea life perched atop Earth’s mountain ranges.

“We know these mountains came originally from the ocean by the sea fossils found on the Tibetan plateau, thousands of metres above sea level,” Parnell said.

“But piling up huge slabs of rock on such a scale needs serious lubrication, otherwise friction would stop them.

“That lubricant is carbon, which became part of the ocean rock when dead plankton fell to the ocean floor and became buried.”

Parnell and Brolly’s research found that the size of Earth’s mountain ranges wouldn’t be possible without the addition of fossilised sea life in the form of carbon – more specifically, graphite.

The research took examples from mountains built around the world about two billion years ago in Australia, China, South America, the Arctic and in northwest Scotland.

“In each of the 20 ancient mountain ranges that were studied, exceptional amounts of graphite were recorded. In many cases the graphite is abundant enough to have been mined as a resource,” Parnell said.

“Without the carbon from countless cells of plankton, the distribution of tectonic plates may have evolved rather differently, and we would not have mountains as we know them.”

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