”A Hall she saw standing
far from the sun,
on Dead Body Shore.
With the doors facing North,
In through the roof vent.
For the walls are woven
Of Serpents spines.”
Völuspá, Níðhöggr First Stanza.
I come from the North, and in our traditions and old religious motifs, we have always known that the end of the world comes from the North. Turns out that science is indeed proving that we were right the entire time.
The difference is just that it is not our world that is ending, it is the world of the future New Pangea that is ending up in the far North, and that the end has already begun quite some time ago.
The Mid Atlantic Rift, erroneously named as it will turn out, is a planet-scale scar running all the way from frozen Antarctica, up to the equally frozen Arctic reaches.
So, let us at least mentally stand on the Northern Shores of the grandest expression of the Mid Atlantic Rift, Iceland, and let us look towards the North. Isn’t that the tail of Níðhöggr that we see out there? Isn’t it the End of the World as we thought it would be that we see out there?
It is time to spread our scaled wings and start our journey to the North, and beyond.
Up, up, and Away
First, it is time to take stock of where we start, Iceland is built by the interaction of a mantleplume and the spreading of the Mid Atlantic Rift. It is being uplifted by the mantleplume by about 54 metres, and it is spreading at a rate of 2.8 centimetres per year.
The total uplift of Iceland is 3 000 metres, here I am talking about the uplift created by the negative gravitation anomaly caused by the lower density material in the Icelandic mantleplume. Or in other words, the “lumpiness” of Earth in Iceland, as evidenced by measurments from the GOCE satellite.
As such it is the greatest known driver of tectonic change on the planet, besides the combined force of the Mid Atlantic Rift. But as a point source, it is the strongest force on Earth.
As we pass the Tjörnes Fracture Zone we come to the Kolbeinsey Ridge that runs North and to the West of the Jan Mayen micro-continent until it meets the Jan Mayen Fracture Zone and diverts to the East.
Jan Mayen itself is a miniature of Iceland, with a WNW/ESE-trending part of the Mid Atlantic Ridge intersecting and spreading it, and a remnant of an old and most likely dying mantleplume, that may be the old Alpha Ridge-plume. Most of the micro-continent is moving eastwards away from Iceland, but the Nort western tip is welded to Greenland.
Here is where we leave our beloved Mid Atlantic Rift Behind, it has served us well, but we need to get to know the amorous northern sister/extension now.
There is just one thing we need to discuss first. As we have travelled North the speed of the spreading have been slowing down as we jumped between the different parts as we travelled. As we leave Jan Mayen the speed has dropped to just below 2 centimetres per year.
The Arctic Mid Oceanic Ridge
As we enter AMOR proper we encounter the Mohns Ridge that is moving Northeast towards Bear Island. Like all of the other parts, this is a volcanic oceanic spreading ridge, but otherwise, it is not the most intriguing of our features. As it nears Bear Island and more solid crust it then diverts towards the North again.
Here is where I need to talk about East/West and North/South. We are now entering an area of the globe where maps go haywire, directions are no longer well suited to our usual spatial grid pairings, and unless you have a globe, or use Google Earth, things will become tricky to describe using North, East, South and West, all of it sort of breaks down into a general North.
This problem spills over to compasses going bonkers from here on, and even the GPS system is letting us down due to lack of coverage. Trigonometry is from now on the best tool.
Just to describe how weird it is, there will soon be a part that has the heading of Nort-South-North. You get my point. I just wanted to give fair warning that I might sound like a babbling buffoon soon when giving directions, so I will as far as I can point to where it starts and towards a point it is heading.
Ah, the Great North, it is a wonder in confusion. We even have three North poles, the actual magnetic North Pole called the Geomagnetic Pole that is used for navigation (at Ellesmere Island), the North Magnetic Pole (Just South of the Geographical North Pole towards Russia), and the map Geographical North Pole.
Normally in the more southerly parts, this does not matter much, but here in the North, it is the heart of the problem. Especially since the magnetic North is galumphing about at a decent clip from the North Magnetic Pole.
In other words, the further towards the map North you go, the more your compass will point Westward (if you are in the Atlantic) since it is located at Ellesmere Island, until it starts to point due South as you near the Geographic North Pole.
Do you see my point now? It is a headache. Let us now continue our travelling. As we near Bear Island we encounter the first of our 3 main shows.
The Gakkel Ridge
The Gakkel Ridge goes from just West of Bear Island in an almost straight line towards Siberia passing near the Geographic North Pole before turning due South (well in some sense of the word).
It is the only spread centre that has been deduced theoretically from the plate-tectonic theory by Yakov Yakovlevich Gakkel, prior to actual discovery in 1950, as such it is the final proof of the plate-tectonic theory.
If you started at Iceland you will have the deep Amundsen Basin on the righthand side and the shallower and smaller Nansen Basin on the left.
The Gakkel Ridge is divided into 3 parts, The Western Volcanic Zone is the first one we encounter, it has volcanism indicating an unusually cold crust, a He3/He4 anomaly akin to what is expected at a mantleplume, but it erupts Mid Oceanic Rift Basalt.
It is spreading at 1.5cm at the beginning, and at the end (from our direction of travel) it is spreading at just above 1cm per year. It is erupting unusually much for such a slow spread, and the Ridge is filled with active black smokers ejecting ten times as much volatiles as is found at other oceanic spread-centres, creating thick mats of microbial life.
After that we run into the Sparsely Magmatic Zone where the spread rate hits 1 centimetre per year, eruptions here occur, but they are far more uncommon.
Then we run into the Eastern Volcanic Zone, and as we go south (well sort of) towards Siberia the spread rate increases from 1cm back up to 1.45cm. But here it is time to take a pause before re-joining the EVZ once more and ponder the effects of the spread for the lands of the Canadians and Americans.
The Travelling Gringos
In plate-tectonics, all things are not equal. In Iceland, the East-West rate of spreading is 2.8cm per year, but it is far from equally distributed.
The reason for this is that the bulkier Eurasian plate is harder to push, and it is also being pushed at the Southern end by India, Indonesia and increasingly Australia. This leads the Eastern and Northern parts into being almost immobile.
On the other hand, the North American continent is not as heavy, nor is it in any great degree hampered by other continents slamming into it at the other end.
This means that the North American Continent is shunted Westwards by Iceland together with Greenland at a clip of about 2cm per year. It is here easy to assume that this will lead to the North American continent hitting the back door of the Eurasian continent.
Those who believe this forgot that pesky Gakkel Ridge, it may be slow, but it is if nothing else every bit as steady as the Mid Atlantic Rift. It is on average shunting the North American continent 1cm due South. The Western and Southern movements are greatest at the top.
In other words, North America is slowly pivoting against Central America, and will if this trajectory continues do a 180-degree twist and hit South America in some distant future. This is though not likely to continue in a longer geological time scale, but it is enough to hinder the North American Plate from joining the behind of Eurasia.
It seems that the much-hyped future New Pangea is in trouble. Time to go back to where I digressed.
The Dragon’s Lair
As we move towards the Laptev Sea and Siberia the Eastern Volcanic Zone will become increasingly explosive.
It is here that we rekindle our connection with Níðhöggr since here is where its lair is. It is a volcano so exquisitely rare that it is not a black swan, it is a full-blown dragon roaring in anger.
At the end of the EVZ towards the Laptev Sea, we find the Gakkel Caldera, the only known oceanic spreading ridge VEI-8 caldera known. And befitting of Níðhöggr it is a behemoth 100 kilometres long and 40 kilometres wide.
As it erupted 1.09 million years ago it ejected 3,000 cubic kilometres of material. At the time of the eruption, it resided about 2 kilometres below the surface of the ocean, today the caldera floor is a staggering 4.8 kilometres below the surface.
When it was found in 2016 one might think it would have been big news, but since the bulk of the data and reports are in Russian it kind of lingered in obscurity, I do though recommend reading the link below from the only English paper about it by Alexey Piskarev and Maria Elkina.
More research here is adamant, this is an almost unknown type of volcanism, and we desperately need to find out if this was a one-off fluke, or if there is a risk that the same might happen at other parts of the Gakkel Ridge. If nothing else, Hunga Tonga was a stark reminder that we need to study oceanic calderas better, especially if they point towards volcanism of this scale being possible.
I for one would sleep better knowing that a Hunga Tonga that is 1,000 times larger is not around the corner in my relative neck of the woods.
Crack what now?
Surely, here the party is over? After all, there is supposedly nothing beyond the Gakkel Ridge? Well, it is time to try out some vodka-infused volcanism. Let us crack Russia apart, after all, it is only fair after kicking North America into South America.
So, let us pour some of that exquisite Russian Vodka and serve up some blinis as a snack as we head into the Laptev Sea.
At the margin of the Arctic Basin and the Laptev Sea, the Gakkel Ridge become the Laptev Rift. It is still spreading at the rate of 1.5cm per year, but something here is missing from the equation, it is once more sparsely populated with volcanoes, and we do not know why.
But rest assured, there are some extinct volcanic islands to comfort us with, or at least extinct as far as we know.
As the Laptev Rift enters Northern Russia less is known, this is the great hinterland of Siberia, and it is surprisingly unknown and understudied. What little we know is that the spread rate here is 1.5 centimetres and that there seemingly is no volcanism to be had for a distance.
But as we continue, we find a more volcanic part of the rift system once more in the form of the Moma-Zoryansk Rift that is running all the way from the De Long Islands down through 2/3rd of Russia. It is a younger rift than the Gakkel Ridge, so it may represent how far the Mid Atlantic Rift has progressed up until now.
On the East side of the rift, we have the Chersky Range which is a compressional faulted uplift mountain range caused by the interaction between the Eurasian Plate and the North American Plate. This has caused a tug of war between extension and compression.
The volcanoes caused by the rifting are once more He3/He4 anomalous indicating a mantleplume origin, and the erupted materials of the volcanoes of the Holocene Balagan-Tas, Viliga River Dyke Complex, Majak Dome and the Holocene Uraga-Khaya volcano, that ranges from Hawaiite to Rhyolite.
At the southern end of the Moma-Zoryansk Rift the rate of spreading drops back to 1cm per year and then dwindles to a standstill.
It is here time to leave what is now and look into the future of New Pangea from the perspective of the still extending Mid Atlantic Rift.
First, we probably should rename it into the World Rift, after all as a substantial part of the MAR is decidedly not Atlantic. We must also consider that the further along we go from Iceland, the younger the rift becomes.
This points towards it still expanding and rifting towards the south on the other side of the planet. At the same time, it is battling itself there as the North American Plate being affected by the MAR directly here is meeting itself as an opposing force.
Over time and as the rift propagates south and the North American Plate is pushing further south the propagating rift will continue down on southwards, neatly cleaving away Fareast Russia from Central Russia. The question is more if North America will drag it along, or if it will become a separate continent, the Arkhangelskiy Continent.
So, New Pangea is utterly dead as an idea at this point. Instead, we will get Panamerica, Antarctica, Arkhangelskiy, Afroeurasia, Afrodivorcia, and if only Baikal get a move on, we will get Indasia and an ever-diminishing Russia.
My conclusion is a bit speculative, we can’t prognosticate the movements of the continents more than a few million years into the future, after that the uncertainties grow too large. That being said, we can though conclude that the current models are flawed since the modelling did not include the Gakkel Ridge and beyond.
In the end, if Vladimir Putin knew about geotectonics, he would be appalled and cry in his borstj if he knew that his Russian Empire is well and truly doomed in the future.
I would here like to say something. It has taken me since 2016 to write this article. Part of this is me understanding what is happening, and it has also taken finding and reading dozens of papers in all sorts of languages. I have for obvious reasons kept the list of references short and in English. It was though as fun to prepare and write as it was arduous.
I will leave you with the conclusion from the finale of the Völuspá and our friend Níðhöggr:
“Darkness comes there
down from, below
The bodies of men
on her wings she bears,
Niðhöggr to get,
now she will land.”
Völuspá, final stanza