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Plate Tectonics



The earth beneath our feet is not dead; it is constantly moving, driven by forces deep in its core. Nor is the planet's crust all of one piece; it is composed of numerous plates, which are moving steadily in relation to one another. This movement is responsible for all manner of phenomena, including earthquakes, volcanoes, and the formation of mountains. All these ideas, and many more, are encompassed in the concept of plate tectonics, which is the name for a branch of geologic and geophysical study and for a powerful theory that unites a vast array of ideas. Plate tectonics works hand in hand with several other striking concepts and discoveries, including continental drift and the many changes in Earth's magnetic field that have taken place over its history. No wonder, then, that this idea, developed in the 1960s but based on years of research that preceded that era, is described as "the unifying theory of geology."


Tectonics and Tectonism

The lithosphere is the upper layer of Earth's interior, including the crust and the brittle portion at the top of the mantle. Tectonism is the deformation of the lithosphere, and the term tectonics refers to the study of this deformation, including its causes and effects, most notably mountain building. This deformation is the result of the release and redistribution of energy from Earth's core.

The interior of Earth itself is divided into three major sections: the crust, mantle, and core. The first is the uppermost division of the solid earth, representing less than 1% of its volume and varying in depth from 3 mi. to 37 mi. (5-60 km). Below the crust is the mantle, a thick, dense layer of rock approximately 1,429 mi. (2,300 km) thick. The core itself is even more dense, as illustrated by the fact that it constitutes about 16% of the planet's volume and 32% of its mass. Composed primarily of iron and another, lighter element (possibly sulfur), it is divided between a solid inner core with a radius of about 760 mi. (1,220 km) and a liquid outer core about 1,750 mi. (2,820 km) thick.

Tectonism results from the release and redistribution of energy from Earth's interior. There are two components of this energy: gravity, a function of the enormous mass at the core, and heat from radioactive decay. (For more about gravity, see Gravity and Geodesy. The heat from Earth's core, the source of geothermal energy, is discussed in Energy and Earth.) Differences in mass and heat within the planet's interior, known as pressure gradients, result in the deformation of rocks.


Any attempt to deform an object is referred to as stress, and stress takes many forms, including tension, compression, and shear. Tension acts to stretch a material, whereas compressiona type of stress produced by the action of equal and opposite forces, whose effect is to reduce the length of a materialhas the opposite result. (Compression is a form of pressure.) As for shear, this is a kind of stress resulting from equal and opposite forces that do not act along the same line. If a thick, hardbound book is lying flat and one pushes the front cover from the side so that the covers and pages are no longer perfectly aligned, this is an example of shear.

Under the effects of these stresses, rocks may bend, warp, slide, or break. They may even flow, as though they were liquids, or melt and thus truly become liquid. As a result, Earth's interior may manifest faults, or fractures in rocks, as well as folds, or bends in the rock structure. The effects of this activity can be seen on the surface in the form of subsidence, which is a depression in the crust, or uplift, which is the raising of crustal materials. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions also may result.

There are two basic types of tectonism: orogenesis and epeirogenesis. Orogenesis is taken from the Greek words oros ("mountain") and genesis ("origin") and involves the formation of mountain ranges by means of folding, faulting, and volcanic activity. The Greek word epeiros means "mainland," and epeirogenesis takes the form of either uplift or subsidence. Of principal concern in the theory of plate tectonics, as we shall see, is orogenesis, which involves more lateral, as opposed to vertical, movement.

Continental Drift

If one studies a world map for a period of time, one may notice something interesting about the shape of Africa's west coast and that of South America's east coast: they seem to fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Early in the twentieth century, two American geologists, Frank Bursley Taylor (1860-1938) and Howard Baker, were among the first scientists to point out this fact. According to Taylor and Baker, Europe, the Americas, and Africa all had been joined at one time. This was an early version of continental drift, a theory concerning the movement of Earth's continents.

Continental drift is based on the idea that the configuration of continents was once different than it is today, that some of the individual landmasses of today once were joined in other continental forms, and that the landmasses later moved to their present locations. Though Taylor and Baker were early proponents, the theory is associated most closely with the German geophysicist and meteorologist Alfred Wegener (1880-1930), who made the case for continental drift in The Origin of Continents and Oceans (1915).


According to Wegener, the continents of today once formed a single supercontinent called Pangaea, from the Greek words pan ("all") and gaea ("Earth"). Eventually, Pangaea split into two halves, with the northern continent of Laurasia and the southern continent of Gondwanaland, sometimes called Gondwana, separated by the Tethys Sea. In time, Laurasia split to form North America, the Eurasian land-mass with the exception of the Indian subcontinent, and Greenland. Gondwanaland also split, forming the major southern landmasses of the world: Africa, South America, Antarctica, Australia, and India.

The Austrian geologist Eduard Suess (1831-1914) and the South African geologist Alexander du Toit (1878-1948), each of whom contributed significantly to continental drift theory, were responsible for the naming of Gondwanaland and Laurasia, respectively. Suess preceded Wegener by many years with his theory of Gondwanaland, named after the Gondwana region of southern India. There he found examples of a fern that, in fossilized form, had been found in all the modern-day constituents of the proposed former continent. Du Toit, Wegener's contemporary, was influenced by continental drift theory and improved on it greatly.


Today continental drift theory is accepted widely, in large part owing to the development of plate tectonics, "the unifying theory in geology." We examine the evidence for continental drift, the arguments against it, and the eventual triumph of plate tectonics in the course of this essay. Before going on, however, let us consider briefly the now-accepted timeline of events described by Wegener and others.

About 1,100 million years ago (earth scientists typically abbreviate this by using the notation 1,100 Ma), there was a supercontinent named Rodinia, which predated Pangaea. It split into Laurasia and Gondwanaland, which moved to the northern and southern extremes of the planet, respectively. Starting at about 514 Ma, Laurasia drifted southward until it crashed into Gondwanaland about 425 Ma. Pangaea, surrounded by a vast ocean called Panthalassa ("All Ocean"), formed approximately 356 Ma.

In the course of Pangaea's formation, what is now North America smashed into northwestern Africa, forming a vast mountain range. Traces of these mountains still can be found on a belt stretching from the southern United States to northern Europe, including the Appalachians. As Pangaea drifted northward and smashed into the ocean floor of Panthalassa, it formed a series of mountain ranges from Alaska to southern South America, including the Rockies and Andes. By about 200 Ma, Pangaea began to break apart, forming a valley that became the Atlantic Ocean. But the separation of the continents was not a "neat" process: today a piece of Gondwanaland lies sunken beneath the eastern United States, far from the other landmasses to which it once was joined.

By about 152 Ma, in the late Jurassic period, the continents as we know them today began to take shape. By about 65 Ma, all the present continents and oceans had been formed for the most part, and India was drifting north, eventually smashing into southern Asia to shape the world's tallest mountains, the Himalayas, the Karakoram Range, and the Hindu Kush. This process is not finished, however, and geologists believe that some 250-300 million years from now, Pangaea will re-form.


As proof of his theory, Wegener cited a wide variety of examples, including the apparent fit between the coastlines of South America and western Africa as well as that of North America and northwestern Africa. He also noted the existence of rocks apparently gouged by glaciers in southern Africa, South America, and India, far from modern-day glacial activity. Fossils in South America matched those in Africa and Australia, as Suess had observed. There were also signs that mountain ranges continued between continentsnot only those apparently linking North America and Europe but also ranges that seemed to extend from Argentina to South Africa and Australia.

By measurements conducted over a period of years, Wegener even showed that Greenland was drifting slowly away from Europe, yet his theory met with scorn from the geoscience community of his day. If continents could plow through oceanic rock, some geologists maintained, then they would force up mountains so high that Earth would become imbalanced. As for his claim that matching fossils in widely separated regions confirmed his theory of continental drift, geologists claimed that this could be explained by the existence of land bridges, now sunken, that once had linked those areas. The apparent fit between present-day landmasses could be explained away as coincidence or perhaps as evidence that Earth simply was expanding, with the continents moving away from one another as the planet grew.

Introduction to Plate Tectonics

Though Wegener was right, as it turned out, his theory had one major shortcoming: it provided no explanation of exactly how continental drift had occurred. Even if geologists had accepted his claim that the continents are moving, it raised more questions than answers. A continent is a very large thing simply to float away; even an aircraft carrier, which is many millions of times lighter, has to weigh less than the water it displaces, or it would sink like a stone. In any case, Wegener never claimed that continents floated. How, then, did they move?

The answer is plate tectonics, the name both of a theory and of a specialization of tectonics. As an area of study, plate tectonics deals with the large features of the lithosphere and the forces that fashion them. As a theory, it explains the processes that have shaped Earth in terms of plates (large movable segments of the lithosphere) and their movement. Plate tectonics theory brings together aspects of continental drift, seafloor spreading (discussed later), seismic and volcanic activity, and the structures of Earth's crust to provide a unifying model of Earth's evolution.

It is hard to overemphasize the importance of plate tectonics in the modern earth sciences; hence, its characterization as the "unifying theory." Its significance is demonstrated by its inclusion in the book The Five Biggest Ideas of Science, cited in the bibliography for this essay. Alongside plate tectonics theory in that volume are four towering concepts of extraordinary intellectual power: the atomic model, or the concept that matter is made up of atoms; the periodic law, which explains the chemical elements; big bang theory, astronomers' explanation of the origins of the universe (see Planetary Science); and the theory of evolution in the biological sciences.


In 1962 the United States geologist Harry Hammond Hess (1906-1969) introduced a new concept that would prove pivotal to the theory of plate tectonics: seafloor spreading, the idea that seafloors crack open along the crest of mid-ocean ridges and that new seafloor forms in those areas. (Another American geologist, Robert S. Dietz [1914-1995], had published his own theory of seafloor spreading a year before Hess's, but Hess apparently developed his ideas first.) According to Hess, a new floor forms when molten rock called magma rises up from the asthenosphere, a region of extremely high pressure underlying the lithosphere, where rocks are deformed by enormous stresses. The magma wells up through a crack in a ridge, runs down the sides, and solidifies to form a new floor.

Three years later, the Canadian geologist John Tuzo Wilson (1908-1993) coined the term plates to describe the pieces that make up Earth's rigid surface. Separated either by the mid-ocean rifts identified earlier by Heezen or by mountain chains, the plates move with respect to one another. Wilson presented a model for their behavior and established a global pattern of faults, a sort of map depicting the movable plates. The pieces of a new theory were forming (an apt metaphor in this instance!), but as yet it had no name.

That name appeared in 1967, when D. P. Mackenzie of England and R. L. Parker of the United States introduced the term plate tectonics. They maintained that the surface of Earth is divided into six major as well as seven minor movable plates and compared the continents to enormous icebergsmuch as Wegener had described them half a century earlier. Subsequent geologic research has indicated that there may be as many as nine major plates and as many as 12 minor ones.

To test these emerging ideas, the U.S. National Science Foundation authorized a research voyage by the vessel Glomar Challenger in 1968. On their first cruise, through the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic, the Challenger 's scientific team collected sediment, fossil, and crust samples that confirmed the basics of seafloor spreading theory. These results led to new questions regarding the reactions between rocks and the heated water surrounding them, spawning new research and necessitating additional voyages. In the years that followed, the Challenger made more and more cruises, its scientific teams collecting a wealth of evidence for the emerging theory of plate tectonics.


Early Evidence of Plate Tectonics

No single person has been as central to plate tectonics as Wegener was to continental drift or as the English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was to evolution. The roots of plate tectonics lie partly in the observations of Wegener and other proponents of continental drift as well as in several discoveries and observations that began to gather force in the third quarter of the twentieth century.

During World War II, submarine warfare necessitated the development of new navigational technology known as sonar (SO und N avigation A nd R anging). Sonar functions much like radar (see Remote Sensing), but instead of using electromagnetic waves, it utilizes ultrasonic, or high-frequency, sound waves projected through water. Sonar made it feasible for geologists to study deep ocean basins after the war, making it possible for the first time in history to map and take samples from large areas beneath the seas. These findings raised many questions, particularly concerning the vast elevation differences beneath the seas.


One of the first earth scientists to notice the curious aspects of underwater geology was the American geologist William Maurice Ewing (1906-1974), who began his work long before the war. He had gained his first experience in a very practical way during the 1920s, as a doctoral student putting himself through school. Working summers with oil exploration teams in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Texas had given him a basic understanding of the subject, and in the following decade he went to work exploring the structure of the Atlantic continental shelf and ocean basins.

His work there revealed extremely thick sediments covering what appeared to be high mountainous regions. These findings sharply contradicted earlier ideas about the ocean floor, which depicted it as a flat, featureless plain rather like the sandy-bottomed beaches found in resort areas. Instead, the topography at the bottom of the ocean turned out to be at least as diverse as that of the land above sea level.


During the 1950s, a team led by another American geologist, Bruce Charles Heezen (1924-1977), worked on developing an overall picture of the ocean basin's topography. Earlier work had identified a mountain range running the length of the Atlantic, but Heezen's team discovered a deep valley down the middle of the chain, running parallel to it. They described it as a rift valley, a long trough bounded by two or more faults, and compared it to a similar valley in eastern Africa.

Around the same time, a group of transatlantic telephone companies asked Heezen to locate areas of possible seismic or earthquake activity in the Atlantic. Phone company officials reasoned that if they could find the areas most likely to experience seismic activity, they could avoid placing their cables in those areas. As it turned out, earthquakes tended to occur in exactly the same region that Heezen and his team had identified as the rift valley.

The Plates and Their Interactions

The most significant plates that make up Earth's surface are as follows:

Selected Major Plates

  • North American (almost all of North America and Mexico, along with Greenland and the northwestern quadrant of the Atlantic)
  • South American (all of South America and the southwestern quadrant of the Atlantic)
  • African (Africa, the southeastern Atlantic, and part of the Indian Ocean)
  • Eurasian (Europe and Asia, excluding the Indian subcontinent, along with surrounding ocean areas)
  • Indo-Australian (India, much of the Indian Ocean, Australia, and parts of the Indonesian archipelago and New Zealand)
  • Antarctic (Antarctica and the Antarctic Ocean)

In addition to these plates, there are several plates that while they are designated as "major" are much smaller: the Philippine, Arabian, Caribbean, Nazca (off the west coast of South America), Cocos (off the west coast of Mexico), and Juan de Fuca (extreme western North America). Japan, one of the most earthquake-prone nations in the world, lies at the nexus of the Philippine, Eurasian, and Pacific plates.


One of the key principles of geology, discussed elsewhere in this book, is uniformitarianism: the idea that processes occurring now also occurred in the past. The reverse usually is also true; thus, as we have noted, the plates are still moving, just as they have done for millions of years. Thanks to satellite remote sensing, geologists are able to measure this rate of movement. (See Remote Sensing for more on this subject.) Not surprisingly, its pace befits the timescale of geologic, as opposed to human, processes: the fastest-moving plates are careening forward at a breathtaking speed of 4 in. (10 cm) per year. The ground beneath Americans' feet (assuming they live in the continental United States, east of the Juan de Fuca) is drifting at the rate of 1.2 in. (3 cm) every year, which means that in a hundred years it will have shifted 10 ft. (3 m).


Plates interact by moving toward each other (convergence), away from each other (divergence), or past each other (transform motion). Convergence usually is associated with subduction, meaning that one plate is forced down into the mantle and eventually undergoes partial melting. This typically occurs in the ocean, creating a depression known as an oceanic trench. Divergence results in the separation of plates and most often is associated either with seafloor spreading or the formation of rift valleys.

There are three types of plate margins, or boundaries between plates, depending on the two types of crusts that are interacting: oceanic with oceanic, continental with continental, or continental with oceanic. The rift valleys of the Atlantic are an example of an oceanic margin where divergence has occurred, while oceanic convergence is illustrated by a striking example in the Pacific. There, subduction of the Philippine Plate by the Pacific Plate has created the Mariana Trench, which at 36,198 ft. (10,911 m) is the deepest depression on Earth.

When continental plates converge, neither plate subducts; rather, they struggle against each other like two warriors in a fight to the death, buckling, folding, and faulting to create huge mountain ranges. The convergence of the Indo-Australian and Eurasian plates has created the highest spots on Earth, in the Himalayas, where Mount Everest (on the Nepal-Indian border) rises to 29,028 ft. (8,848 m). Continental plates also may experience divergence, resulting in the formation of seas. An example is the Red Sea, formed by the divergence of the African and Arabian plates.

Given these facts about the interactions of oceanic and continental plates with each other, what occurs when continental plates meet oceanic ones is no surprise. In this situation, the oceanic plate meeting the continental plate is like a high-school football player squaring off against a National Football League pro tackle. It is no match: the oceanic plate easily subducts. This leads to the formation of a chain of volcanoes along the continental crust, examples being the Cascade Range in the U.S. Pacific Northwest (Juan de Fuca and Pacific plates) or the Andes (South American and Nazca plates).

Transform margins may occur with any combination of oceanic or continental plates and result in the formation of faults and earthquake zones. Where the North American Plate slides against the Pacific Plate along the California coast, it has formed the San Andreas Fault, the source of numerous earthquakes, such as the dramatic San Francisco quakes of 1906 and 1989 and the Los Angeles quake of 1994.


As noted earlier, plate tectonics brings together numerous areas of study in the geologic sciences that developed independently but which came to be seen as having similar roots and explanations. Among these disciplines is paleomagnetism, an area of historical geology devoted to studying the direction and intensity of magnetic fields in the past, as discerned from the residual magnetization of rocks.

Earth has a complex magnetic field whose principal source appears to be the molten iron of the outer core. In fact, the entire planet is like a giant bar magnet, with a north pole and a south pole. It is for this reason that the magnetized material in a compass points north; however, Earth's magnetic north pole is not the same as its geographic north pole. It so happens that magnetic north lies in more or less the same direction as geographic north, but as geologists in the mid-nineteenth century discovered, this has not always been the case. (For more about magnetic north and other specifics of Earth's magnetic field, see Geomagnetism.)

In 1849 the French physicist Achilles Delesse (1817-1881) observed that magnetic minerals tend to line up with the planet's magnetic field, pointing north as though they were compass needles. Nearly 60 years later, however, another French physicist, Bernard Brunhes (1867-1910), noted that in some rocks magnetic materials point south. This suggested one of two possibilities: either the planet's magnetic field had reversed itself over time, or the ground containing the magnetized rocks had moved. Both explanations must have seemed far-fetched at the time, but as it turned out, both are correct.

Earth's magnetic field has shifted, meaning that the magnetic north and south poles have changed places many times over the eons. In addition, the magnetic poles have wandered around the southern and northern portions of the globe: for instance, whereas magnetic north today lies in the frozen islands to the north of Canada, at about 300 Ma it was located in eastern Siberia. The movement of magnetic rocks on Earth's surface, however, has turned out to be too great to be explained either by magnetic shifts or by regional wandering of the poles. This is where plate tectonics and paleomagnetism come together.


Rocks in Alaska have magnetic materials aligned in such a way that they once must have been at or near the equator. In addition, the orientation of magnetic materials on South America's east coast shows an affinity with that of similar materials on the west coast of Africa. In both cases, continental drift, with its driving mechanism of plate tectonics, seems the only reasonable explanation.

Thus, paleomagnetic studies have served to confirm the ideas of continental drift and plate tectonics, while research conducted at sea bolsters seafloor spreading theory. Using devices called magnetometers, geologists have found that the orientation of magnetic minerals on one side of a rift mirrors that of materials on the other side. This suggests that the new rock on either side of the rift was formed simultaneously, as seafloor spreading theory indicates.

Earthquakes and Volcanoes

Several findings relating to earthquakes and volcanic activity also can be explained by plate tectonics. If one follows news stories of earthquakes, one may begin to wonder why such places as California or Japan have so many quakes, whereas the northeastern United States or western Europe have so few. The fact is that earthquakes occur along belts, and the vast majority of these belts coincide with the boundaries between Earth's major tectonic plates.

The same is true of volcanoes, and it is no mistake that places famous for earthquakesthe Philippines, say, or Italyoften also are known for their volcanoes. Although they are located near the center of the Pacific Plate, the islands of Hawaii are subject to plate movement, which has helped generate the volcanoes that gave those islands their origin. At the southern end of the island chain, many volcanoes are still active, while those at the northern end tend to be dormant. The reason is that the Pacific Plate as a whole is moving northward over a stationary lava source in the mantle below Hawaii. The southern islands remain poised above that source, while the northern islands have moved away from it.

The Oceanic and Continental Crusts

Given what we have seen about continental drift and seafloor spreading, it should come as no surprise to learn that, generally speaking, the deeper one goes in the ocean, the newer the crust. Specifically, the crust is youngest near the center of ocean basins and particularly along mid-ocean ridges, or submarine mountain ridges where new seafloor is created by seafloor spreading.

It also should not be surprising to learn that oceanic and continental crusts differ both in thickness and in composition. Basalt, an igneous rock (rock formed from the cooling of magma), makes up the preponderance of ocean crust, whereas much of the continental crust is made up of granite, another variety of igneous rock. Whereas the ocean crust is thin, generally 3-6 mi. (5-10 km) in depth, the continental crust ranges in thickness from 12.5-55 mi. (20-90 km). This results in a difference in thickness for the lithosphere, which is only about 60 mi. (100 km) thick beneath the oceans but about 2.5 times as thick150 mi. (250 km)under the continents.


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Gallant, Roy A. Dance of the Continents. New York: Benchmark Books, 2000.

Geology: Plate Tectonics (Web site). <>.

Kious, W. Jacquelyne, and Robert I. Tilling. This Dynamic Earth: The Story of Plate Tectonics. U.S. Geological Survey (Web site). <>.

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Plate Tectonics (Web site). <>.

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Silverstein, Alvin, Virginia B. Silverstein, and Laura Silverstein Nunn. Plate Tectonics. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books, 1998.

Wynn, Charles M., Arthur W. Wiggins, and Sidney Harris. The Five Biggest Ideas in Science. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1997.



A region of extremely high pressure underlying the lithosphere, where rocks are deformed by enormous stresses. The asthenosphere liesat a depth of about 60-215 mi. (about100-350 km).


A form of stress produced by the action of equal and opposite forces, the effect of which is to reduce the length of a material. Compression is a form of pressure.


The theory that the configuration of Earth's continents was once different than it is today; that some of the individual landmasses of today once were joined in other continental forms; and that these landmasses later separated and moved to their present locations.


A tectonic process whereby plates move toward each other. Usually associated with subduction, convergence typically occurs in the ocean, creating an oceanic trench. It is one of the three ways, along with divergence and transform motion, that plates interact.


The center of Earth, an area constituting about 16% of the planet's volume and 32% of its mass. Made primarily of iron and another, lighter element (possibly sulfur), it is divided between a solid inner core with a radius of about 760 mi.(1,220 km) and a liquid outer core about1,750 mi. (2,820 km) thick.


The uppermost division of the solid earth, representing less than 1% of its volume and varying in depth from 3-37 mi.(5-60 km). Below the crust is the mantle.


A tectonic process whereby plates move away from each other. Divergence results in the separation of plates and is associated most often either with seafloor spreading or with the formation of rift valleys. It is one of the three ways, along with convergence and transform motion, that plates interact.


One of two principal forms of tectonism, the other beingorogenesis. Derived from the Greek words epeiros ("mainland") and genesis ("origins"), epeirogenesis takes the form of either uplift or subsidence.


An area of fracturing between rocks resulting from stress.


An area of rock that has been bent by stress.


A branch of the earth sciences that combines aspects of geology and physics. Geophysics addresses the planet's physical processes as well as its gravitational, magnetic, and electric properties, and the means by which energy is transmitted through its interior.


The study of Earth's physical history. Historical geology is one of two principal branches of geology, the other being physical geology.


The upper layer of Earth's interior, including the crust and the brittle portion at the top of the mantle.


An abbreviation used by earth scientists, meaning "million years." When an event is designated as, for instance, 160 Ma, it means that it happened 160 million years ago.


The thick, dense layer of rock, approximately 1,429 mi. (2,300 km) thick, between Earth's crust and its core.


Sub marine mountain ridges where new seafloor is created by seafloor spreading.


A deep depression in the ocean floor caused by the convergence of plates and the resulting subduction of one plate.


One of two principal forms of tectonism, the other being epeirogenesis. Derived from the Greek words oros ("mountain") and genesis ("origin"), orogenesis involves the formation of mountain ranges by means of folding, faulting, and volcanic activity. The processes of oro-genesis play a major role in plate tectonics.


An area of historical geology devoted to studying the direction and intensity of magnetic fields in the past, as discerned from the residual magnetization of rocks.


Boundaries between plates.


The name both of a theory and of a specialization of tectonics. As an area of study, plate tectonics deals with the large features of the lithosphere and the forces that fashion them. As a theory, it explains the processes that have shaped Earth in terms of plates and their movement. Plate tectonics theory brings together aspects of continental drift, seafloor spreading, seismic and volcanic activity, and the structures of Earth's crust to provide a unifying model of Earth's evolution. It is one of the dominant concepts in the modern earth sciences.


Large movable segments of the lithosphere.


A term describing a phenomenon whereby certain materials are subject to a form of decay brought about by the emission of high-energy particles or radiation. Forms of particles or energy include alpha particles (positively charged helium nuclei), beta particles (either electrons or subatomic particles called positrons ), or gamma rays, which occupy the highest energy level in the electromagnetic spectrum.


The gathering of data without actual contact with the materials or objects being studied.


A split between two bodies (for example, two plates) that once were joined.


A long trough bounded by two or more faults.


The theory that seafloors crack open along thecrests of mid-ocean ridges and that new seafloor forms in those areas.


A form of stress resulting from equal and opposite forces that do not act along the same line. If a thick, hard-bound book is lying flat and one pushes the front cover from the side so that the covers and pages are no longer perfectly aligned, this is an example of shear.


In general terms, any attempt to deform a solid. Types of stress includetension, compression, and shear. More specifically, stress is the ratio of force to unit area F/A, where F is force and A area.


A tectonic process thatresults when plates converge and one plate forces the other down into Earth's mantle. As a result, the subducted plate eventually undergoes partial melting.


A depression in Earth's crust.


The study of tectonism, including its causes and effects, most notably mountain building.


The deformation of the lithosphere.


A form of stress produced by a force that acts to stretch a material.


A general statement derived from a hypothesis that has withstood sufficient testing.


A tectonic process whereby plates slide past eachother. It is one of the three ways, along with convergence and divergence, that plates interact.

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Plate Tectonics

Plate tectonics

Plate tectonics is the theory explaining geologic changes that result from the movement of lithospheric plates over the asthenosphere (the molten, ductile, upper portion of the earth's mantle). The visible continents, a part of the lithospheric plates upon which they ride, shift slowly over time as a result of the forces driving plate tectonics. Moreover, plate tectonic theory is so robust in its ability to explain and predict geological processes that it is equivalent in many regards to the fundamental and unifying principles of evolution in biology, and nucleosynthesis in physics and chemistry .

Based upon centuries of cartographic depictions that allowed a good fit between the western coast of Africa and the eastern coast of South America , in 1858, French geographer Antonio Snider-Pellegrini, published a work asserting that the two continents had once been part of larger single continent ruptured by the creation and intervention of the Atlantic Ocean. In the 1920s, German geophysicist Alfred Wegener's writings advanced the hypothesis of continental drift depicting the movement of continents through an underlying oceanic crust . Wegner's hypothesis met with wide skepticism but found support and development in the work and writings of South African geologist Alexander Du Toit, who discovered a similarity in the fossils found on the coasts of Africa and South Americas that derived from a common source.

The technological advances necessitated by the Second World War made possible the accumulation of significant evidence now underlying modern plate tectonic theory.

Plate tectonic theory asserts that Earth is divided into core, mantle, and crust. The crust is subdivided into oceanic and continental crust. The oceanic crust is thin (34.3 mi [57 km]), basaltic (<50% SiO2), dense, and young (<250 million years old). In contrast, the continental crust is thick (18.640 mi [3065 km]), granitic (<60% SiO2), light, and old (2503,700 million years old). The outer crust is further subdivided by the subdivision of the lithospheric plates, of which it is a part, into 13 major plates. These lithospheric plates, composed of crust and the outer layer of the mantle, contain a varying combination of oceanic and continental crust. The lithospheric plates move on top of mantle's asthenosphere.

Boundaries are adjacent areas where plates meet. Divergent boundaries are areas under tension where plates are pushed apart by magma upwelling from the mantle. Collision boundaries are sites of compression either resulting in subduction (where lithospheric plates are driven down and destroyed in the molten mantle) or in crustal uplifting that results in orogeny (mountain building). At transform boundaries, exemplified by the San Andreas fault, the continents create a shearing force as they move laterally past one another.

New oceanic crust is created at divergent boundaries that are sites of sea-floor spreading . Because Earth remains roughly the same size, there must be a concurrent destruction or uplifting of crust so that the net area of crust remains the same. Accordingly, as crust is created at divergent boundaries, oceanic crust must be destroyed in areas of subduction under-neath the lighter continental crust. The net area is also preserved by continental crust uplift that occurs when less dense continental crusts collide. Because both continental crusts resist subduction, the momentum of collision causes an uplift of crust, forming mountain chains . A vivid example of this type of collision is found in the ongoing collision of India with Asia that has resulted in the Himalayan Mountains that continue to increase in height each year. This dynamic theory of plate tectonics also explained the formation of island arcs formed by rising material at sites where oceanic crust subducts under oceanic crust, the formation of mountain chains where oceanic crust subducts under continental crust (e.g., Andes mountains), and volcanic arcs in the Pacific. The evidence for deep, hot, convective currents combined with plate movement (and concurrent continental drift) also explained the mid-plate "hot spot" formation of volcanic island chains (e.g., Hawaiian Islands) and the formation of rift valleys (e.g., Rift Valley of Africa). Mid-plate earthquakes , such as the powerful New Madrid earthquake in the United States in 1811, are explained by interplate pressures that bend plates much like a piece of sheet metal pressed from opposite sides.

As with continental drift theory two of the proofs of plate tectonics are based upon the geometric fit of the displaced continents and the similarity of rock ages and Paleozoic fossils in corresponding bands or zones in adjacent or corresponding geographic areas (e.g., between West Africa and the eastern coast of South America).

Modern understanding of the structure of Earth is derived in large part from the interpretation of seismic studies that measure the reflection of seismic waves off features in Earth's interior. Different materials transmit and reflect seismic shock waves in different ways, and of particular importance to the theory of plate tectonics is the fact that liquid does not transmit a particular form of seismic wave known as an S-wave. Because the mantle transmits S-waves, it was long thought to be a cooling solid mass. Geologists later discovered that radioactive decay provided a heat source within Earth's interior that made the asthenosphere plasticine (semi-solid). Although solid-like with regard to transmission of seismic S-waves, the asthenosphere contains very low velocity (inches per year) currents of mafic (magma-like) molten materials.

Another line of evidence in support of plate tectonics came from the long-known existence of ophiolte suites (slivers of oceanic floor with fossils) found in upper levels of mountain chains. The existence of ophiolte suites are consistent with the uplift of crust in collision zones predicted by plate tectonic theory.

As methods of dating improved, one of the most conclusive lines of evidence in support of plate tectonics derived from the dating of rock samples. Highly supportive of the theory of sea floor spreading (the creation of oceanic crust at a divergent plate boundary (e.g., Mid-Atlantic Ridge) was evidence that rock ages are similar in equidistant bands symmetrically centered on the divergent boundary. More importantly, dating studies show that the age of the rocks increases as their distance from the divergent boundary increases. Accordingly, rocks of similar ages are found at similar distances from divergent boundaries, and the rocks near the divergent boundary where crust is being created are younger than the rocks more distant from the boundary. Eventually, radioisotope studies offering improved accuracy and precision in rock dating also showed that rock specimens taken from geographically corresponding areas of South America and Africa showed a very high degree of correspondence, providing strong evidence that at one time these rock formations had once coexisted in an area subsequently separated by movement of lithospheric plates.

Similar to the age of rocks, studies of fossils found in once adjacent geological formations showed a high degree of correspondence. Identical fossils are found in bands and zones equidistant from divergent boundaries. Accordingly, the fossil record provides evidence that a particular band of crust shared a similar history as its corresponding band of crust located on the other side of the divergent boundary.

The line of evidence, however, that firmly convinced modern geologists to accept the arguments in support of plate tectonics derived from studies of the magnetic signatures or magnetic orientations of rocks found on either side of divergent boundaries. Just as similar age and fossil bands exist on either side of a divergent boundary, studies of the magnetic orientations of rocks reveal bands of similar magnetic orientation that were equidistant and on both sides of divergent boundaries. Tremendously persuasive evidence of plate tectonics is also derived from correlation of studies of the magnetic orientation

of the rocks to known changes in Earth's magnetic field as predicted by electromagnetic theory. Paleomagnetic studies and discovery of polar wandering, a magnetic orientation of rocks to the historical location and polarity of the magnetic poles as opposed to the present location and polarity, provided a coherent map of continental movement that fit well with the present distribution of the continents.

Paleomagnetic studies are based upon the fact that some hot igneous rocks (formed from volcanic magma) contain varying amounts of ferromagnetic minerals (e.g., Fe3O4) that magnetically orient to the prevailing magnetic field of Earth at the time they cool. Geophysical and electromagnetic theory provides clear and convincing evidence of multiple polar reversals or polar flips throughout the course of Earth's history. Where rock formations are uniformi.e., not grossly disrupted by other geological processesthe magnetic orientation of magnetite-bearing rocks can also be used to determine the approximate latitude the rocks were at when they cooled and took on their particular magnetic orientation. Rocks with a different orientation to the current orientation of Earth's magnetic field also produce disturbances or unexpected readings (anomalies) when scientists attempt to measure the magnetic field over a particular area.

This overwhelming support for plate tectonics came in the 1960s in the wake of the demonstration of the existence of symmetrical, equidistant magnetic anomalies centered on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Geologists were comfortable in accepting these magnetic anomalies located on the sea floor as evidence of sea floor spreading because they were able to correlate these anomalies with equidistant radially distributed magnetic anomalies associated with outflows of lava from land-based volcanoes.

Additional evidence continued to support a growing acceptance of tectonic theory. In addition to increased energy demands requiring enhanced exploration, during the 1950s there was an extensive effort, partly for military reasons related to what was to become an increasing reliance on submarines as a nuclear deterrent force, to map the ocean floor. These studies revealed the prominent undersea ridges with undersea rift valleys that ultimately were understood to be divergent plate boundaries. An ever-growing network of seismic reporting stations, also spurred by the Cold War need to monitor atomic testing, provided substantial data that these areas of divergence were tectonically active sites highly prone to earthquakes. Maps of the global distribution of earthquakes readily identified stressed plate boundaries. Improved mapping also made it possible to view the retrofit of continents in terms of the fit between the true extent of the continental crust instead of the current coastlines that are much variable to influences of weather and ocean levels.

In his important 1960 publication, History of Ocean Basins, geologist and U.S. Navy Admiral Harry Hess (19061969) provided the missing explanatory mechanism for plate tectonic theory by suggesting that the thermal convection currents in the asthenosphere provided the driving force behind plate movements. Subsequent to Hess's book, geologists Drummond Matthews (19311997) and Fred Vine (19391988) at Cambridge University used magnetometer readings previously collected to correlate the paired bands of varying magnetism and anomalies located on either side of divergent boundaries. Vine and Matthews realized that magnetic data revealing strips of polar reversals symmetrically displaced about a divergent boundary confirmed Hess's assertions regarding seafloor spreading.

See also Dating methods; Earth, interior structure; Fossil record; Fossils and fossilization; Geologic time; Hawaiian Island formation; Lithospheric plates; Mantle plumes; Mapping techniques; Mid-ocean ridges and rifts; Mohorovicic discontinuity (Moho); Ocean trenches; Rifting and rift valleys; Subduction zone

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Plate Tectonics

Plate Tectonics

Plate tectonics is the unifying theory of geology that describes and explains that all earthquakes, volcanic activity, and mountain-building processes are caused by the gradual movement of rigid slabs of rock, called plates, that make up the Earth's surface layer. Given the expanse of geologic time, even modest movementsmeasured in centimeters or inches per yearresult in substantial changes in the distribution of lands and oceans over millions of years.

Earth Structure

The Earth's internal structure can be viewed in two ways: either in terms of compositional layers, or in terms of layers of varying strength. There are three main compositional layers: the crust, mantle, and core. The crust, the outermost layer, is relatively buoyant and very thin compared to the mantle and core.

Beneath the oceans, the oceanic crust varies very little in thickness, generally extending only about 5 kilometers (3.1 miles), and is composed of basalt . The crust beneath the continents, however, is much more variable in thickness, averaging about 30 kilometers (18.6 miles); under large mountain ranges it can extend to depths of up to 100 kilometers (62.1 miles). Continental crust is mostly formed of granite, which is less dense than basalt. This density difference is important in driving the motion of plates, as described below.

Below the crust is the mantle, a dense, hot layer approximately 2,900 kilometers (1,802 miles) thick. At the center of the Earth lies the core, which is composed of an ironnickel alloy. It is divided into two regionsa liquid outer core and solid inner core. As the Earth rotates, the liquid inner core spins, creating the Earth's magnetic field.

Within the crust and mantle, there also are two important mechanical layersthe lithosphere and asthenosphere. The lithosphere is the outermost of these layers, and comprises the crust and uppermost mantle. The lithosphere is relatively cool, making the rock strong and resistant to deformation. The lithosphere is broken into the moving tectonic (or lithospheric) plates.

Below the lithosphere is a relatively narrow, mobile zone of the mantle called the asthenosphere. The asthenosphere is a weak zone, formed of mostly solid rock (with perhaps a little magma mixed in), and flows very slowly, in a manner similar to the ice at a bottom of a glacier. The rigid lithosphere is believed to "float" or move about on the slowly flowing asthenosphere.

Plate Tectonic Theory is Developed

The plate tectonic theory known today evolved in the 1950s, owing to four major scientific developments:

  1. Demonstration of the young age of the ocean floor;
  2. Confirmation of repeated reversals of the Earth's magnetic field in the geologic past;
  3. Emergence of the seafloor-spreading hypothesis and associated recycling of the oceanic crust; and
  4. Precise documentation that the Earth's earthquake and volcanic activity was concentrated along subduction zones and mid-ocean ridges.

Youthful Seafloor.

Before the nineteenth century, the depth of the open ocean was a matter of speculation, although most scientists believed it to be flat and featureless. Only in 1855 did the first bathymetric maps reveal the first evidence of underwater mountains in the central Atlantic. In 1947, seismologists found that the sediment layer on the floor of the Atlantic was much thinner than previously thought. Scientists believed that the oceans were over 4 billion years old, and were perplexed by the distinct lack of sediment cover. The answer to this question would prove vital to advancing the theory of plate tectonics.

Magnetic Field Reversals.

In the 1950s, scientists began recognizing magnetic variations in the rocks of the ocean floor. This was not entirely unexpected, since it was known that basalt contained the mineral magnetite, and this mineral was known to locally distort compass readings. In the early part of the twentieth century, geologists recognized that oceanic rocks had normal or reverse polarity (i.e., in normal polarity, the rocks have the same orientation of today's magnetic field). This can be explained by the ability of the magnetite grains to align themselves in the molten basalt with the Earth's magnetic field. When the rock cools, these grains are "locked" in, recording the magnetic orientation or polarity (normal or reversed) at the time of cooling. As more of the ocean floor was mapped, patterns of alternating stripes of normal and reverse polarity were noted; this became known as magnetic striping.

Seafloor Spreading.

With the discovery of magnetic striping at mid-ocean ridges, scientists began to theorize that mid-ocean ridges mark structurally weak zones where magma from deep within the Earth rises and erupts at the surface. This theory, called seafloor spreading, quickly gained acceptance, but raised an additional question: If new crust is continually being formed at mid-ocean ridges, and the Earth is not increasing in size, what is happening to the old crust? Harry Hess and Robert Dietz postulated that the old crust must be destroyed in the deep canyon-like oceanic trenches, while new crust if formed at the mid-ocean ridges. This theory explained why the Earth is not expanding, there is little sediment on the ocean floor, and oceanic crust is much younger than continental rocks.

Subduction Zones.

The final scientific discovery that cemented the theory of plate tectonics occurred with improvements in seismic detection in the 1950s. Seismologists identified regions of earthquake activity that coincided with Hess's predicted areas of ocean crust generation (mid-ocean ridges) and oceanic lithosphere destruction (subduction zones). Today scientists know that tectonic plates move, because they can measure their motion directly using the global positioning system (GPS).

Plate Tectonic Boundaries

Plate tectonic boundaries are regions where lithospheric plates meet. There are three types of plate tectonic boundaries: divergent, convergent, and transform.


Divergent boundaries occur along spreading ridges where plates are moving apart and new crust is being created by ascending magma from the mantle. An example of a divergent plate boundary is the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. This submerged mountain chain extends from the Arctic to the southern tip of Africa, and is one part of the global ridge system that extends around the Earth.* The Mid-Atlantic Ridge spreads at a rate of approximately 2.5 centimeters (1 inch) per year.


Convergent boundaries are regions where lithospheric plates collide. The type of convergence depends on the types of plates involved: namely, (1) oceanicoceanic convergence; (2) oceaniccontinental convergence; (3) continentalcontinental convergence (see figure).

  • OceanicOceanic. When two oceanic plates collide, one plate is subducted beneath the other. This occurs as one lithospheric plate becomes older, colder, and denser than the underlying hot, weak asthenosphere. As the lithosphere sinks slowly through the asthenosphere, the uppermost sediments are melted, and the resulting magma reaches the surface to form volcanoes. As a result, subduction zones are marked by an arc of volcanoes parallel to and about 150 kilometers (93 miles) from the plate margin. An example of oceanic-oceanic collision is the Marianas Trench and the Aleutian Islands in the Pacific Ocean.
  • OceanicContinental. When oceanic and continental plates collide, the oceanic plate is the one that is subducted beneath the continental plate, because the continental crust is lighter and less dense. An example of oceanic-continental collision is seen at the Cascadia Subduction Zone, where the Pacific Plate is being subducted beneath the North American Plate.
  • ContinentalContinental. Continentalcontinental convergence results in spectacular mountain ranges such as the Himalayas, the Alps, and the Appalachians. Because continental crust is buoyant, neither plate will subduct, and a collision zone is the result.


Transform boundaries mark regions where plates slide past one another. Transform boundaries are great vertical fractures that extend down through the lithosphere. An example of a transform boundary is the San Andreas Fault in Southern California (see the photograph of the fault on page 202).

Plate Movements

The lithospheric plates do not randomly meander about the Earth's surface, but are driven by internal forces. The mantle is believed to move in circular motions rather like soup boiling on a stovetop, wherein the heated soup rises to the surface, cools, and sinks back to the bottom of the pot, where it is heated and rises again. This cycle is called convective flow, and it is the same process that occurs in the mantle today. However, the heat source within the Earth is radioactive decay of minerals and residual heat from the formation of the Earth.

Until the early 1990s, scientists believed that mantle convection, seafloor spreading, and magma intrusion at mid-ocean ridges (called "ridge push") were the predominant mechanisms that drove plate motion. However, in recent years, the significance of subduction mechanisms over mid-ocean ridge processes has taken precedence. The gravity-controlled sinking of a cold, dense, oceanic slab into a subduction zone (called "slab pull") now is considered the driving mechanism behind plate tectonics.

Although scientists know that forces deep within the Earth drive plate motion, they may never know the exact details, because no mechanism can be directly tested. The fact that lithospheric plates have moved in the past and are still in motion today is beyond dispute, but the exact mechanisms of how and why they move will continue to challenge scientists in the future.

see also Geothermal Energy; Hot Springs on the Ocean Floor; Mid-Ocean Ridges; Ocean Basins; Ocean-Floor Bathymetry; Volcanoes, Submarine.

Alison Cridland Schutt


Skinner, Brian J., and Stephen C. Porter. This Dynamic Earth. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1992.

Internet Resources

This Dynamic Earth. U.S. Geological Survey. <>.

* See "Mid-Ocean Ridges" for an image illustrating the mid-ocean ridge system.

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Plate Tectonics

Plate tectonics

Plate tectonics is the geologic theory that Earth's crust is made up of rigid plates that "float" on the surface of the planet. Tectonics comes from the Greek word meaning "builder." The movement of the plates toward or away from each other either directly or indirectly creates the major geologic features at Earth's surface.

Plate tectonics revolutionized the way geologists view Earth. Like the theory of evolution in biology, plate tectonics is the unifying concept of geology. It explains nearly all of Earth's major surface features and activities. These include faults and earthquakes, volcanoes and volcanism, mountains and mountain building, and even the origin of the continents and ocean basins.

Continental drift

Plate tectonics is a comparatively new idea. The theory of plate tectonics gained widespread acceptance only in the 1960s. About 50 years earlier, German geophysicist Alfred Wegener (18801930) developed a related theory known as continental drift. Wegener contended that the positions of Earth's continents are not fixed. He believed instead that they are mobile and over time drift about on Earth's surfacehence the name continental drift.

Wegener's most obvious evidence for his theory was the fact that several of the world's continents fit together like pieces in a jig-saw puzzle. Based on this, he proposed that the continents of the world were previously joined together in one large continental mass, a supercontinent he called Pangaea (pronounced pan-JEE-ah). Wegener believed that this supercontinent had subsequently broken up into the six present-day continents. However, Wegener could not provide a convincing explanation as to what moved the continents around the surface of the planet. That answer came with the theory of plate tectonics.

Plate structure

Earth's tectonic plates are rigid slabs of rock. Geologists divide the interior of Earth into layers, based on their composition (from solid to liquid).

Words to Know

Asthenosphere: Portion of the mantle beneath the lithosphere composed of partially melted material.

Convection current: Circular movement of a fluid in response to alternating heating and cooling.

Convergence: The movement of two plates toward one another.

Crust: Thin, solid outer portion of Earth.

Divergence: Separation of two plates as they move in opposing directions.

Lithosphere: Rigid uppermost section of the mantle combined with the crust.

Mantle: Thick, dense layer of rock that underlies Earth's crust.

Ocean trench: Deep depression in the seafloor, created by an oceanic plate being forced downward into the subsurface by another, overriding plate.

Plate margin: The boundaries where plates meet.

Plates: Large regions of Earth's surface, composed of the crust and uppermost mantle, which move about, forming many of Earth's major geologic surface features.

Seafloor spreading: Process in which new seafloor forms as molten rock from Earth's interior rises toward the surface, pushing the existing seafloor out of its way.

Subduction: Tectonic process that involves one plate being forced down into the mantle at an oceanic trench, where it eventually undergoes partial melting.

Transform motion: Horizontal plate movement in which one plate slides past another.

The thin outer portion of the planet is the crust. Beneath that is the mantle, which is solid near the top and "soft" or partially melted beginning at a depth of about 40 miles (65 kilometers) beneath the surface. The crust and the rigid portion of the mantle compose the lithosphere. The soft portion of the mantle is called the asthenosphere.

It is the lithosphere that is broken up into plates, which move about while floating upon the underlying asthenosphere. There are about eight major plates and several smaller ones that are in constant contact with each other. When one plate moves, it causes other plates to move. These plates have many different shapes and sizes. Some, such as the Juan de Fuca plate off the west coast of Washington State, have surface areas of a few thousand square miles. The largest, the Pacific plate, underlies most of the Pacific Ocean and covers an area of hundreds of thousands of square miles.

Plate movement

Most modern geologists believe convection currents in the asthenosphere are the driving force for plate motion. The heat energy at the center of the planet is carried to the surface by currents. As they reach the surface, the currents cool and begin to sink back toward the center. Below the crust, pressure exerted on the bottom of the plates by the convection currents helps to push the plates along. Plates move at rates of

about 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) per year. The fastest plates move more than 4 inches (10 centimeters) per year.

Plate interactions

Tectonic plates can interact in one of three ways. They can move toward one another, or converge. They can move away from one another, or diverge. Or they can slide past one another, or transform. The boundaries where plates meet are known as plate margins. The types of geologic activity that occur when two plates interact is dependent on the nature of the plate interaction and of the margins. Plate margins come in three varieties: oceanic-oceanic, continental-continental, and continental-oceanic.

Oceanic-oceanic plates. When two oceanic plates converge, one of the plates subducts or sinks underneath the other, forming a deep depression called an ocean trench. The subducted plate sinks downward into the mantle where it begins to melt. Molten rock from the melting plate rises toward the surface and forms a chain of volcanic islands, or a volcanic island arc, behind the ocean trench. When oceanic plates diverge, a ridge (mountain chain) develops and seafloor spreading occurs. Molten rock pushes up at the divergent margin, creating mountains and an expanding seafloor. Today, Europe and North America move about 3 inches (7.5 centimeters) farther apart every year as the Atlantic Ocean grows wider.

Continental-continental plates. Continental-continental convergent plates act quite differently than oceanic-oceanic plates. Continental crust is too light to be carried downward into a trench. At continental-continental convergent margins neither plate subducts. The two continental plates converge, buckle, and compress to form complex mountains ranges of great height. Convergence of this sort produced the Himalayas when the Indian-Australian plate collided with the Eurasian plate.

Continental-continental divergence causes a continent to separate into two or more smaller continents when it is ripped apart along a series of fractures. The forces of divergence literally tear a continent apart as the two or more blocks of continental crust begin slowly moving apart and magma pushes into the rift formed between them. Eventually, if the process of continental rifting continues, a new sea is born between the two continents. Rifting between the Arabian and African plates formed the Red Sea in this way.

Continental-oceanic plates. When continental and oceanic plates converge, the oceanic plate (which is denser) subducts below the edge of the continental plate. Volcanoes form as result, but in this setting, the chain of volcanoes forms on the continental crust. This volcanic mountain chain, known as a volcanic arc, is usually several hundred miles inland

from the plate margin. The Andes Mountains of South America and the Cascade Mountains of North America are examples of volcanic arcs. No continental-oceanic divergent margins exist today. They are unlikely to form and would quickly become oceanic-oceanic divergent margins as seafloor spreading occurred.

Transform motion. In addition to convergence and divergence, transform motion may occur along plate margins. Transform margins are less spectacular than convergent and divergent ones, and the type of plates involved is really of no significance. As two rock plates slide past one another at a margin, a crack or fault develops. The energy generated by the movement is often released in the form of an earthquake. The best known example of a transform plate margin is the San Andreas Fault in California, where the Pacific and North American plates are in contact.

[See also Earthquake; Earth's interior; Fault; Geologic map; Ocean; Volcano ]

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plate tectonics

plate tectonics, theory that unifies many of the features and characteristics of continental drift and seafloor spreading into a coherent model and has revolutionized geologists' understanding of continents, ocean basins, mountains, and earth history.

Development of Plate Tectonics Theory

The beginnings of the theory of plate tectonics date to around 1920, when Alfred Wegener, the German meteorologist and geophysicist, presented the first detailed accounts of how today's continents were once a large supercontinent that slowly drifted to their present positions. Others brought forth evidence, but plate tectonics processes and continental drift did not attract wide interest until the late 1950s, when scientists found the alignment of magnetic particles in rock responded to the earth's magnetic field of that time. Plotting paleomagnetic polar changes (see paleomagnetism) showed that all continents had moved across the earth over time.

Synthesized from these findings and others in geology, oceanography, and geophysics, plate tectonics theory holds that the lithosphere, the hard outer layer of the earth, is divided into about 7 major plates and perhaps as many as 12 smaller plates, c.60 mi (100 km) thick, resting upon a lower soft layer called the asthenosphere. Because the sides of a plate are either being created or destroyed, its size and shape are continually changing. Such active plate tectonics make studying global tectonic history, especially for the ocean plates, difficult for times greater than 200 million years ago. The continents, which are c.25 mi (40 km) thick, are embedded in some of the plates, and hence move as the plates move about on the earth's surface.

The mechanism moving the plates is at present unknown, but is probably related to the transfer of heat energy or convection within the earth's mantle. If true, and the convection continues, the earth will continue to cool. This will eventually halt the mantle's motion allowing the crust to stabilize, much like what has happened on other planets and satellites in the solar system, such as Mars and the moon.

Plate Boundary Conditions

There are numerous major plate boundary conditions. When a large continental mass breaks into smaller pieces under tensional stresses, it does so along a series of cracks or faults, which may develop into a major system of normal faults. The crust often subsides, forming a rift valley similar to what is happening today in the Great Rift Valley through the Red Sea. If rifting continues, a new plate boundary will form by the process of seafloor spreading. Mid-ocean ridges, undersea mountain chains, are the locus of seafloor spreading and are the sites where new oceanic lithosphere is created by the upwelling of mantle asthenosphere.

Individual volcanoes are found along spreading centers of the mid-ocean ridge and at isolated "hot spots," or rising magma regions, not always associated with plate boundaries. The source of hot-spot magmas is believed to be well below the lithosphere, probably at the core-mantle boundary. Hot-spot volcanoes often form long chains that result from the relative motion of the lithosphere plate over the hot-spot source.

Subduction zones along the leading edges of the shifting plates form a second type of boundary where the edges of lithospheric plates dive steeply into the earth and are reabsorbed at depths of over 400 mi (640 km). Earthquake foci form steeply inclined planes along the subduction zones, extending to depths of about 440 mi (710 km); the world's most destructive earthquakes occur along subduction zones.

A third type of boundary occurs where two plates slide past one another in a grinding, shearing manner along great faults called strike-slip faults or fracture zones along which the oceanic ridges are offset. Continental mountain ranges are formed when two plates containing continental crust collide. For example, the Himalayas are still rising as the plates carrying India and Eurasia come together. Mountains are also formed when ocean crust is subducted along a continental margin, resulting in melting of rock, volcanic activity, and compressional deformation of the continent margin. This is currently happening with the Andes Mts. and is believed to have occurred with the uplift of the Rockies and the Appalachians in the past.

Movement of the Continents

According to plate tectonics, the ocean basins are viewed as transient features that have periodically opened and closed, first rending and then suturing the continental masses, which are permanent features on the earth's surface. Geologists now believe that the continents were sutured together 200 million years ago at the beginning of the Mesozoic era to form a supercontinent named Pangaea. Initial rifting along the Tethys Sea formed a northern continental mass, Laurasia, and a southern continental mass, Gondwanaland. Then plate movements caused North American and Eurasian separation coincidentally with the separation of South America, Africa, and India. Australia and Antarctica were the last to separate. The major plates are named after the dominant geographic feature on them such as the North American and South American plates.

Plate motions are believed to have transported large crustal blocks several thousand miles, suturing very different terrains together after collision with a larger mass. These "exotic" terrains may include segments of island arcs quite unrelated to the history of the continent onto which they are sutured. Some geologists believe that continents grow in size primarily by the addition of exotic terrains.


See E. M. Moores and R. J. Twiss, Tectonics (1995); B. F. Windley, The Evolving Continents (3d ed. 1995); K. C. Condie, Plate Tectonics and Crustal Evolution (4th ed. 1997); L. P. Zonenshain et al., Paleogeodynamics: The Plate Tectonic Evolution of the Earth (1997).

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"plate tectonics." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Retrieved May 27, 2016 from

plate tectonics

plate tectonics The unifying concept that has drawn continental drift, sea-floor spreading, seismic activity, crustal structures, and volcanic activity (see VOLCANICITY) into a coherent model of how the outer part of the Earth evolves.The theory proposes a model of the Earth's upper layers in which the colder, brittle, surface rocks form a shell (the lithosphere) overlying a much less rigid asthenosphere. The shell comprises several discrete, rigid units (tectonic plates) each of which has a separate motion relative to the other plates. The plate margins are most readily defined by present-day seismicity, which is a consequence of the differential motions of the individual plates. The model is a combination of continental drift and sea-floor spreading. New lithospheric plates are constantly forming and separating, and so being enlarged, at constructive margins (ridges), while the global circumference is conserved by the subduction and recycling of material into the mantle at destructive margins (trenches). This recycling results in andesitic volcanism and the creation of new continental crust, which has a lower density than the oceanic crust and is more difficult to subduct. Many features of the Earth's history are explicable within this model which has served as a unifying hypothesis for most of the Earth sciences. Previous mountain systems are now recognized as the sites of earlier subduction, often ending with continental crustal collision: the movement of plates has been used with varying success in interpreting orogenic belts as far back as the early Proterozoic. Plate motions are driven by mantle convection and are likely to have occurred throughout Earth history, although the resultant surface features are likely to have changed with time. See RIDGE-PUSH; and SLAB-PULL.

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AILSA ALLABY and MICHAEL ALLABY. "plate tectonics." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. 1999. 27 May. 2016 <>.

AILSA ALLABY and MICHAEL ALLABY. "plate tectonics." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. 1999. (May 27, 2016).

AILSA ALLABY and MICHAEL ALLABY. "plate tectonics." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. 1999. Retrieved May 27, 2016 from

plate tectonics

plate tectonics The theory that the surface of the earth is made of lithospheric plates, which have moved throughout geological time resulting in the present-day positions of the continents. The theory explains the locations of mountain building as well as earthquakes and volcanoes. The rigid lithospheric plates consist of continental and oceanic crust together with the upper mantle, which lie above the weaker plastic asthenosphere. These plates move relative to each other across the earth. Six major plates (Eurasian, American, African, Pacific, Indian, and Antarctic) are recognized, together with a number of smaller ones. The plate margins coincide with zones of seismic and volcanic activity.

A constructive (or divergent) plate margin occurs when two plates move away from each other. It is marked by a mid-oceanic ridge where basaltic material wells up from the mantle to form new oceanic crust, in a process known as sea-floor spreading. The production of new crust at constructive plate margins is compensated for by the destruction of material along a destructive (or convergent) plate margin. Along these margins, which are also known as subduction zones and marked by an oceanic trench, one plate (usually oceanic) is forced to plunge down beneath the other (which may be continental or oceanic). The crust becomes partially melted and rises to form a chain of volcanoes in the upper plate parallel to the trench. When two continental plates collide the compression results in the formation of mountain chains. A third type of plate margin – the transform plate margin – occurs where two plates are slipping past each other.

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"plate tectonics." A Dictionary of Biology. 2004. 27 May. 2016 <>.

"plate tectonics." A Dictionary of Biology. 2004. (May 27, 2016).

"plate tectonics." A Dictionary of Biology. 2004. Retrieved May 27, 2016 from

plate tectonics

plate tectonics Theory or model to explain the distribution, evolution, and causes of the Earth's crustal features. It proposes that the Earth's crust and part of the upper mantle (the lithosphere) consists of several separate, rigid slabs, termed plates, which move independently forming part of a cycle in the creation and destruction of crust. The plates collide or move apart at the margins, and these produce zones of earthquake and volcanic activity. Three types of plate boundary can be identified. At a constructive or divergent margin, new basaltic magma originating in the mantle injects into the plate. The crusts are forced to separate and an oceanic ridge is formed. At a destructive or convergent margin, plates collide and one plate moves under the other. This occurs along oceanic trenches. The recycling of crust by subduction results in the melting of some crustal material, and volcanic island arcs (such as the islands of Japan) are produced. Material that cannot be subducted is scraped up and fused onto the edge of plates. This can form a new continent or add to existing continents. Mountain chains are explained as the sites of former subduction or continental collision. At a conservative margin, plates move past each other along a transform fault. Plate movement is thought to be driven by convection currents in the mantle. See also seafloor spreading

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"plate tectonics." World Encyclopedia. 2005. 27 May. 2016 <>.

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plate tectonics

plate tec·ton·ics • pl. n. [treated as sing.] a theory explaining the structure of the earth's crust and many associated phenomena as resulting from the interaction of rigid lithospheric plates that move slowly over the underlying mantle. DERIVATIVES: plate-tec·ton·ic adj.

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"plate tectonics." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. 2009. 27 May. 2016 <>.

"plate tectonics." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. 2009. (May 27, 2016).

"plate tectonics." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. 2009. Retrieved May 27, 2016 from

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