The continental drift convection cell Academic Article uri icon


  • Continents on Earth periodically assemble to form supercontinents and then break up again into smaller continental blocks (the Wilson cycle). Previous highly developed numerical models incorporate fixed continents while others indicate that continent movement modulates flow. Our simplified numerical model suggests that continental drift is fundamental. A thermally insulating continent is anchored at its center to mantle flow on an otherwise stress-free surface for infinite Prandtl number cellular convection with constant material properties. Rayleigh numbers exceed 107, while continent widths and chamber lengths approach Earth's values. The Wilson cycle is reproduced by a unique, rugged monopolar “continental drift convection cell.” Subduction occurs at the cell's upstream end with cold slabs dipping at an angle beneath the moving continent (as found in many continent/subduction regions on Earth). Drift enhances vertical heat transport up to 30%, especially at the core-mantle boundary, and greatly decreases lateral mantle temperature differences.

publication date

  • June 16, 2015