Geology Word of the Week(ish): Gondwana

Sorry for a bit of a hiatus in posting. For about three weeks, I basically spent my time in lab, in excel, or in powerpoint when not eating or sleeping (and I didn’t do much sleeping) in order to frantically prepare for a big committee meeting. Then, I spent a week recovering from said committee meeting.

Actually, the first few days after my committee meeting were not exactly relaxing- I drove the three hours to my parents (and back) in one day to drop off my cats and then spent two days flying to Cape Town, South Africa where I am currently visiting my geologist fiance. After the committee meeting and the flight, I spent two full days doing nothing but watch television. Seriously. My fiance came home from work and asked what I did, and I answered: “I watched True Blood.” When he asked if I watched True Blood all day, I just stared at him blankly and nodded.

Graduate school– undergrad too– is this way for me. Fortunately, I no longer have to take classes. However, all through college and my first two years of graduate school I suffered from post-finals exhaustion and vegetable brain. In college I used to drive to my parents’ house after finals every semester and spend at least a day watching ridiculous reality TV shows in my PJs and eating lunches of ice cream and potato chips. After a day or two, I would eventually muster enough strength to start dressing properly and perhaps going for a run or kayak. After a week, maybe, I would contemplate reading an actual book.

These days, I don’t have to take exams but I am evaluated in other ways- by periodic meetings with my advisors and committee. I have just entered my 5th (and presumably final) year of graduate school. So now the meetings will, I imagine , become increasingly stressful until I graduate… hopefully… and there won’t be too many days for TV-watching vegetableness. If I survive this PhD (which I will; I’ve gotten this far), I think I’ll need at least 1-2 months of being a vegetable to recover.

This past week, I managed to turn my brain back on somewhat and work on a never-ending manuscript that is always ~90% complete no matter how many hours I work on it. Soon, soon! I must beat it into submission. Now that I’ve just sent another version to my advisor, however, it’s time for me to return to the Geology Word of the Week(ish).

This week(ish) we are at the letter G… I immediately thought of one of my favorite geology words: Gondwana!

Gondwana is perfect word for this week(ish) since, in a sense, I am currently smack in the middle of Gondwana here in South Africa.

Gondwana is an ancient geological supercontinent that was comprised of modern-day Antarctica, South America, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India, and Arabia. Gondwana first formed ~500 million years ago and later joined with the supercontinent Laurasia, that was comprised of modern-day North America, Europe, and Asia, to form a super-supercontinent named Pangea. Subsequently, Pangea began breaking up ~175 million years ago. The first stage of that separation was rifting of Laurasia from Gondwana. Eventually, all of the modern-day continents formed and gradually moved (over the past ~175 million years) into their present positions.

I love thinking about past supercontinents and super-supercontinents. Think about how different the planet must have looked: one massive continent and one massive ocean only. Imagine trekking across that massive continent or trying to sail across that massive ocean– which was called Panthalassia, by the way. What great names: Pangea and Panthalassia. Imagine how much easier geography class must have been back then (purely hypothetically, that is, since there were no humans…). No memorizing the 7 continents and various oceans in primary school. Just one land and one ocean to remember.

Pangea is not the only supercontinent in Earth’s history, just the most recent one. Geologists believe that there have been several cycles of supercontinents forming and breaking up. Of course, the further back one goes in geologic time the sparser the evidence (much is destroyed in cycles of continents forming and breaking up) so much less is known about these earlier supercontinents. However, geologists have given them very cool-sounding names: Pannotia, Rodinia, Columbia, Kenorland, Ur, and Vaalbara.

There are many neat animations on the web showing the formation and break-up of Pangea and other past supercontinents. Here is one animation I like.

Also, remember, that you can always dress up as your favorite supercontinent for that next costume party event… just as I did during my first year of grad school. Back then I actually used to go to parties… unlike now when I mostly prepare for committee meetings and try to submit papers. Sigh.

Halloween is coming up next month, though! Just be sure to remember your cape… you are a supercontinent after all! And be careful… your continents may tend to rift as the night proceeds.


Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.

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  1. I’m in a different field, but my experience in graduate school was that the last year or two is actually down-hill, stress-wise. The worst is your dissertation proposal, because at that point you’re setting your direction and you don’t know a whole lot.

    However, at some point (and I imagine you’re well past it) you know more about the specifics of your subject than anyone on the committee.

    If your dissertation advisor is on the ball, the defense should be easy compared to the other stuff.

    You always have to remember the golden rule: Q:what do they call someone who just barely passed their PhD defense? A: “Doctor”.

    Good luck!

  2. Nice piece, thanks for writing it :) I have to interesting points to add — first, the name Pangaea (“All Lands”) was given by Alfred Wegener, the father of continental drift theory.

    Second, my favorite band, “The Church” have a groovy song called Pangaea, though it doesn’t seem to about geology (with the exception of “we’re drifting apart”), and the word/title seems to just be there to give the singer a cool word to intone. Here’s a linky:

    The first hit is a fan-made vid with the album version, and the third link is a very good live rendition. Lyrics available in the cloud someplace; you know how to find it :)

  3. How do we know that the plates are more or less constant over time? I understand that all the parts of Gondwana are all now present and accounted for just in different places, but how do we know there wasn’t another small plate somewhere else at the same time that crumbled, dispersed, or sank?

  4. Pst! You forgot one part of Laurasia, North America. Without that it’s just Eurasia, which is the continent we have today anyway.

    @davew: Dave, IANAG, but I don’t think there are any known mechanisms for continental plates to crumble, disperse or sink. The oceanic plates are destroyed by subduction, and the ones we have now are fairly new. But continental plates are forever. They may take a beating and get eroded way down, but statistically they’ll grow again before they’re actually destroyed.

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