Shut down the plates, lock down the crust
Dr. Jellinek studies plate tectonics. He and his collaborators recently showed that prolonged heating of the atmosphere can shut down plate tectonics, causing a planet’s crust to lock in place. This locking mechanism can result in increased volcanic activity. Venus provides evidence for this possibility: it shows no outward signs of tectonic activity and has an extremely hot, bone dry surface littered with many volcanoes.
Earth, on the other hand, has an atmosphere 100 times less dense than Venus. For the Earth’s plate tectonics to become unstable, the surface temperature would have to rise by 50 to 100 degrees centigrade or more for millions of years.
“Currently we worry about the implications of global warming of only a few degrees,” says Dr. Jellinek. “However, larger variations in Earth's surface temperature are not unreasonable over a geologic time scale of millions of years. What is particularly striking about our results is that this geologically plausible climate change can have a profound influence on the planet's geodynamics.”
This research also sheds light on the possible conditions found on Earth-like planets beyond the solar system.
This story relates to our research program: Earth System Evolution