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Precious Metals  
3 August 2015

Earthquakes and super volcanoes: The making of South Africa’s mineral wealth

MDekok

Prof Michiel de Kock

We like to think Earth is a stable home, but it isn’t really. As earthquakes rock California and the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska, and as the story of survivors of the Nepal earthquakes three months ago continue, we are reminded that Earth continues to change.

Our planet has been changing for as long as it has existed. Nowadays South Africa is part of a land mass where earthquakes are rare and no-one could point out a live volcano.

It wasn’t always like that, says Prof Michiel de Kock, a paleomagnetist from the DST-NRF Cimera Research Centre of Excellence hosted by the University of Johannesburg (UJ).

UJ has the only laboratory on the African continent that allows scientists to trace the paths of drift of continents through time.

“Billions of years ago, when the continents we know today had not even been formed yet, the land surface that would become South Africa boasted a whole lot of volcanoes. Not just little ones that could spew a few small ash clouds. No, these volcanoes were super volcanoes that wreaked havoc far and wide,” he says.

“When these super volcanoes erupted, they caused earthquakes, tsunamis, blew away mountains and covered continents in hot lava. We know of super volcano eruptions that blew so much ash and gasses into the atmosphere, that global climate changed dramatically. In fact, one such eruption probably caused the biggest mass extinction of life we know about.”

But the super volcanoes blowing up did something else too. Each one blew more than a million cubic kilometers of molten rock from deep within the Earth towards the surface. This molten rock, or lava, also contributed to shaping the land mass we live on today. The eruptions even caused ancient continents at several instances to break up and re-form in new ways.

“In South Africa, the super volcanoes of the past 2.7 billion years left us with something unique in the world – after all the drama, our part of the continent was full of diamonds and platinum, and multiple blankets of cooled down lava protected our giant gold deposits from erosion,” says Prof de Kock.

The earthquakes and the molten rock flows caused by ancient super volcanoes left South Africa with the most valuable minerals real estate on the planet.

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