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In the first application of the developing plate tectonic theory to the pre-Pangaea world 50 years ago, attempting to explain the origin of the Paleozoic Appalachian–Caledonian orogen, J. Tuzo Wilson asked the question: ‘Did the Atlantic close and then reopen?’. This question formed the basis of the concept of the Wilson cycle: ocean basins opening and closing to form a collisional mountain chain. The accordion-like motion of the continents bordering the Atlantic envisioned by Wilson in the 1960s, with proto-Appalachian Laurentia separating from Europe and Africa during the early Paleozoic in almost exactly the same position that it subsequently returned during the late Paleozoic amalgamation of Pangaea, now seems an unlikely scenario. We integrate the Paleozoic history of the continents bordering the present day basin of the North Atlantic Ocean with that of the southern continents to develop a radically revised picture of the classic Wilson cycle The concept of ocean basins opening and closing is retained, but the process we envisage also involves thousands of kilometres of mainly dextral motion parallel with the margins of the opposing Laurentia and Gondwanaland continents, as well as complex and prolonged tectonic interaction across an often narrow ocean basin, rather than the single collision suggested by Wilson.

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