Scientists Discover 'Supermountains' That Stretched 4,500 Miles

Prehistoric "supermountains" that stretched around 4,500 miles and dwarfed the modern-day Himalayas has been discovered by scientists.

Their research, published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, reveals a previously unknown mountain range named the Nuna Supermountains, which existed on a vast ancient continent between two and 1.8 billion years ago. They also describe a second vast mountain range, which arose between 650 and 500 million years ago and is named the Transgondwanan Supermountain.

The findings shed light on two periods of Earth's ancient history, when supercontinents made the surface of the planet look very different to the spread of continents we see today.

The Transgondwanan Supermountain was found on Gondwana, a vast ancient continent that combined the land masses of Antarctica, Africa, South America, Australasia and India and existed between 600 million and 180 million years ago. Its break-up led eventually to the formation of the continents we are familiar with today.

The newly discovered Nuna Supermountains existed on another, much older continent named Columbia, or Nuna. This supercontinent combined landmasses from modern day South America, Africa, Eurasia and Australasia and existed between 2 and 1.8 billion years ago.

Stock photo of Ama Dablam Peak
Stock photo of Ama Dablam Peak in the Himalayas. Researchers said that the Nuna Supermountains dwarfed the Himalayas in terms of scale. Zzvet/Getty Images

The Nuna Supermountains rivalled the height of the modern Himalayas—the world's biggest mountain range that is home to the world's tallest mountains, including Mount Everest. Yet in terms of scale, they dwarfed the Himalayas length of 1,500 miles.

"This length is about three times longer than the modern 2,400km (1,500 mile) long Himalaya mountain range," Australian National University PhD Candidate and study author Ziyi Zhu told Newsweek.

The team showed the dates that the supermountain ranges existed coincided with major evolutionary changes. This potentially means they played a role in the development of life on Earth—something Zhu said she feels "really excited about."

Researchers said mountain building increased erosion and sedimentation, which helped vital substances like phosphorous flow into the the Earth's ancient oceans.

"The early life, such as algae and cyanobacteria, can make use of carbon dioxide, water and light to produce oxygen and sugar, in a process we call photosynthesis," Zhu said. "Nutrients such as phosphorous play a critical role in this process, and the main source of phosphorous in marine ecosystems is weathering and erosion of continental materials.

"The rate of erosion depends on the mountain slope. Therefore, rapid erosion of supermountains would have significantly increased the nutrient supply in the oceans, which would then have promoted biological productivity."

The increased production of carbon caused during the erosion of the supermountains might also have been crucial, the paper said, because that likely led to increases in the oxygen content on Earth—a key necessity for most living things.

The appearance of organisms called eukaryotes coincided with the formation of the Nuna Supermountain. That is important because eukaryotes helped give rise to plants and animals on Earth.

The formation of the Transgondwanan Supermountain also matched a key moment in the evolution of life on Earth—the Cambrian explosion. This took place between 541 and 530 million years ago and was an evolutionary burst, with many animal groups appearing in the fossil record at this time.

"The increase in atmospheric oxygen associated with the erosion of the Transgondwanan Supermountain is the largest in Earth's history and was an essential prerequisite for the appearance of animals," Zhu said in a statement.

"This study gives us markers, so we can better understand the evolution of early, complex life," Study co-author Ian Campbell said in a statement.