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Mesozoic Plate Tectonics

Supercontinents break apart by continental rifting, and caused the breakup of Pangaea along with the formation of the Atlantic Ocean.

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Mesozoic Plate Tectonics

Why would a supercontinent break up?

A continent is a giant insulating blanket that does not allow mantle heat to escape very effectively. This image is of shear wave velocity beneath New Mexico where hot material is trapped beneath the North American plate. The hot material is causing rifting to begin at the Rio Grande Rift.

Supercontinent Breakup

As heat builds up beneath a supercontinent, continental rifting begins. Basaltic lavas fill in the rift and eventually lead to seafloor spreading and the formation of a new ocean basin. This basalt province is where Africa is splitting apart and generating basalt lava.

Africa splitting up in the Afar Region of Ethiopia

In the Afar Region of Ethiopia, Africa is splitting apart. Three plates are pulling away from a central point.

The Breakup of Pangaea

At the end of the Paleozoic there was one continent and one ocean. When Pangaea began to break apart about 180 million years ago, the Panthalassa Ocean separated into the individual but interconnected oceans that we see today on Earth.

The Atlantic Ocean basin formed as Pangaea split apart. The seafloor spreading that pushed Africa and South America apart is continuing to enlarge the Atlantic Ocean (Figure above).

As the continents moved apart there was an intense period of plate tectonic activity. Seafloor spreading was so vigorous that the mid-ocean ridge buoyed upwards and displaced so much water that there was a marine transgression. Later in the Mesozoic those seas regressed and then transgressed again.

Growth of Continents

The moving continents collided with island arcs and microcontinents so that mountain ranges accreted onto the continents’ edges. The subduction of the oceanic Farallon plate beneath western North America during the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous produced igneous intrusions and other structures. The intrusions have since been uplifted so that they are exposed in the Sierra Nevada Mountains (Figure below).

Image of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a line of uplifted batholiths from Mesozoic subduction

The snow-covered Sierra Nevada is seen striking SE to NW across the eastern third of the image. The mountain range is a line of uplifted batholiths from Mesozoic subduction.


  • Continents keep mantle heat from escaping, which may eventually lead to continental rifting.
  • Continents grow as microcontinents or igneous activity add continental crust to an existing continent.
  • When a supercontinent breaks apart, new seafloor forms between the new continental masses.


  1. Would you say that Pangaea is still breaking up? Why or why not?
  2. How does the rate of plate tectonics activity affect sea level?
  3. What caused the igneous intrusions that make up the Sierra Nevada mountains?

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Use this resource (watch up to 6:55) to answer the questions that follow. 

  1. What were the continents doing at the beginning of the Paleozoic?
  2. When did Pangaea start breaking apart? What is the first thing that happens?
  3. By the end of the Jurassic what was happening to Pangaea? What was the name of the northern continent? What was the name of the southern continent?
  4. What did the continents look like in the Cretaceous?
  5. What is happening in the rift between North America & Eurasia and South America and Africa?
  6. Where is India during the Mesozoic? In what direction is it moving?
  7. Why did the Andes Mountains and Rocky Mountains form during this time?

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