Mar 17 2011 | Posted by SSSandy

On a screen near you, the history of the world

At the click of a mouse button, scientists can virtually inspect the surface of our planet using widely available mapping software. 

But what if such software could show us not only the Earth's surface as it is now, but take us back in time to see how it evolved over hundreds of millions of years? 

A new piece of free software developed by a Sydney University geophysics team and international collaborators is delivering just that ability. Released late last year, GPlates1.0 allows anyone to easily visualise the earth's tectonic plates, continents and oceans far back in geological time. 

“It's a little bit like having Google Earth with a time slider,” said Dietmar Müller, Professor of Geophysics at the University of Sydney's School of Geosciences. 

“You ask the software to show you, for example, how the supercontinent Pangaea and the large oceans surrounding it were assembled 200 million years ago. It delivers that by calculating the probable positions, orientations and motions of the tectonic plates through time.” 

Professor Dietmar Muller demonstrating GPlates1.0

GPlates does much more than merely visualise the appearance of the Earth's surface. Its users can reconstruct the topography of the continents and the oceans through time and then use that geological and geographic data as a boundary condition for a range of computer simulations – from recreations of past climates to simulations which unravel the evolution of the Earth's hot interior. 

Professor Müller received funding for GPlates from AuScope, an Australian research infrastructure project, to unravel the structure and evolution of the Australian continent. The University of Sydney International Program Development Fund supported collaborative work on the software through the Worldwide Universities Network with a former WUN member, the University of California San Diego. The California Institute of Technology and the Geological Survey of Norway were also involved in the project.

So far, Professor Müller and his collaborators have used GPlates to investigate a number of geophysical mysteries including how Australia's monsoon evolved through time, how the Rocky Mountains were formed around 70 million years ago and how New Zealand was torn from the Australian continent around 100 million years ago. 

In another promising application, the software may be used to help locate oil, natural gas and mineral deposits far below the Earth's surface. GPlates will enable researchers to uncover associations of specific types of rocks and minerals with plate boundary configurations, mantle hotspots and plate collisions. 

“In the long term, our goal is to expand its capability even further, linking the desktop software to remote databases and allowing it to automatically download a diversity of geodata and detailed map images depending on how far the user zooms in,” said Professor Müller. 

“It will essentially be a virtual geological observatory.”

Story by Chris Rodley.

For more information on this story contact Richard North at or +61 2 9351 3191.