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Jun 17, 2013 02:39 PM EDT

Geologists Find Tectonic Fault that Could Move North America Toward Europe

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Geologists have discovered a fault system that could make North America a much closer neighbor to Europe, ABC News reported.

The fault in the plate at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean is just beginning to become active. Using sophisticated sonar imaging and 3D modeling, Dr. João Duarte, lead author of the study and research fellow at Monash University School of Geosciences in Melbourne, and his team believe North America will be pulled closer to Europe's Iberian Peninsula because of a massive earthquake that hit Lisbon in 1755.

The earthquake killed nearly 100,000 people of Portugal's capital and now the Eurasian tectonic plate is collapsing on itself.

"There should not be tectonic activity [in this area], but when we look at this area we see faults that are compressive. This is typical of a plate boundary that is converging," Duarte said.

According to the study in the journal Geology, the plate is breaking and bending due to pressure from the African plate.

"We now have evidence to show that there is a new subduction zone," Duarte said. "It was a kind of Holy Grail because everyone was looking for this, but only now do we work with technology that allows us to look at the deep sea and map these structures in great detail."

Duarte said this will be a unique opportunity to study how tectonic plates shift, fracture and fold. Tectonic plate theories state supercontinents, like Pangaea, from and break apart every 300-500 million years. It is still unclear whether or not this embryonic zone will mature.

If this is to happen, the part of the plate where ocean meets land (the passive margin) must become an active margin and sink underneath another.

"This was never detected in the geologic record because when this process occurs it normally erases all the evidence," Duarte said. "If we are in the exact moment when this is happening we will understand how it happens."

If the research team is correct, North America will be pulled significantly closer to Europe's Iberian coast in approximately 220 million years.

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