Most detailed geological model of the Earth’s surface over the past 100 million years

The digital tool can help us understand the past, and predict Earth's future.

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How has sediment transfer and accumulation from lands to oceans affected Earth’s geomorphology?

Scientists have published new research revealing a detailed and dynamic model of the Earth’s surface over the past 100 million years. The model simulates landscape evolution caused by erosion and deposition over the past 100 million years.

Developed by University of Sydney geoscientists in collaboration with scientists in France, the model offers a high-resolution understanding of how today’s geophysical landscapes were created and how millions of tonnes of sediment have flowed to the oceans.

Lead author Dr. Tristan Salles from the University of Sydney, School of Geosciences, said: “To predict the future, we must understand the past. But our geological models have only provided a fragmented understanding of how our planet’s recent physical features formed.

“If you look for a continuous model of the interplay between river basins, global-scale erosion, and sediment deposition at high resolution for the past 100 million years, it just doesn’t exist.”

“So, this is a big advance. It’s not only a tool to help us investigate the past but will help scientists understand and predict the future, as well.”

Using a framework incorporating geodynamics, tectonic and climatic forces with surface processes, the scientific team has presented a new dynamic model of the past 100 million years at high resolution (down to 10 kilometers), broken into frames of a million years.

Second author Dr. Laurent Husson from Institut des Sciences de la Terre in Grenoble, France, said: “This unprecedented high-resolution model of Earth’s recent past will equip geoscientists with a more complete and dynamic understanding of the Earth’s surface.

“Critically, it captures the dynamics of sediment transfer from the land to oceans in a way we have not previously been able to.”

Dr. Salles said that “understanding the flow of terrestrial sediment to marine environments is vital to comprehend present-day ocean chemistry.”

“Given that ocean chemistry is changing rapidly due to human-induced climate change, having a complete picture can assist our understanding of marine environments.”

The model will enable scientists to investigate several hypotheses regarding how the Earth’s surface will react to shifting tectonic and climate factors.

The study also offers a better model for understanding how sediment movement controls the carbon cycle over millions of years.

Dr. Salles said“Our findings will provide a dynamic and detailed background for scientists in other fields to prepare and test hypotheses, such as in biochemical cycles or biological evolution.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Tristan Salles, Laurent Husson et al. Hundred million years of landscape dynamics from catchment to global scale. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.add2541