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Kious, W. Jacquelyne and Robert I. Tilling. This Dynamic Earth: The Story of Plate Tectonics, online edition, U.S. Geological Survey. Full publicaton available from USGS or USGPO. [Only portions of this online edition have been included here.]

Historical Perspective

 In geologic terms, a plate is a large, rigid slab of solid rock. The word tectonics comes from the Greek root "to build." Putting these two words together, we get the term plate tectonics, which refers to how the Earth's surface is built of plates. The theory of plate tectonics states that the Earth's outermost layer is fragmented into a dozen or more large and small plates that are moving relative to one another as they ride atop hotter, more mobile material. Before the advent of plate tectonics, however, some people already believed that the present-day continents were the fragmented pieces of preexisting larger landmasses ("supercontinents"). The diagrams below show the break-up of the supercontinent Pangaea (meaning "all lands" in Greek), which figured prominently in the theory of continental drift -- the forerunner to the theory of plate

According to the continental drift theory, the supercontinent Pangaea began to break up about 225-200 million years ago, eventually fragmenting into the continents as we know them today.

Plate tectonics is a relatively new scientific concept, introduced some 30 years ago, but it has revolutionized our understanding of the dynamic planet upon which we live. The theory has unified the study of the Earth by drawing together many branches of the earth sciences, from paleontology (the study of fossils) to seismology (the study of earthquakes). It has provided explanations to questions that scientists had speculated upon for centuries -- such as why earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur in very specific areas around the world, and how and why great mountain ranges like the Alps and Himalayas formed.

Why is the Earth so restless? What causes the ground to shake violently, volcanoes to erupt with explosive force, and great mountain ranges to rise to incredible heights? Scientists, philosophers, and theologians have wrestled with questions such as these for centuries. Until the 1700s, most Europeans thought that a Biblical Flood played a major role in shaping the Earth's surface. This way of thinking was known as "catastrophism," and geology (the study of the Earth) was based on the belief that all earthly changes were sudden and caused by a series of catastrophes.

However, by the mid-19th century, catastrophism gave way to "uniformitarianism," a new way of thinking centered around the "Uniformitarian Principle" proposed in 1785 by James Hutton, a Scottish geologist. This principle is commonly stated as follows: The present is the key to the past. Those holding this viewpoint assume that the geologic forces and processes — gradual as well as catastrophic — acting on the Earth today are the same as those that have acted in the geologic past.

Inside the Earth

The size of the Earth — about 12,750 kilometers (km) in diameter-was known by the ancient Greeks, but it was not until the turn of the 20th century that scientists determined that our planet is made up of three main layers: crust, mantle, and core. This layered structure can be compared to that of a boiled egg. The crust, the outermost layer, is rigid and very thin compared with the other two. Beneath the oceans, the crust varies little in thickness, generally extending only to about 5 km. The thickness of the crust beneath continents is much more variable but averages about 30 km; under large mountain ranges, such as the Alps or the Sierra Nevada, however, the base of the crust can be as deep as 100 km. Like the shell of an egg, the Earth's crust is brittle and can break.

Cutaway views showing the internal structure of the Earth. This view drawn to scale demonstrates that the Earth's crust literally is only skin deep. Below right: A view not drawn to scale to show the Earth's three main layers (crust, mantle, and core) in more detail (see text).

Below the crust is the mantle, a dense, hot layer of semi-solid rock approximately 2,900 km thick. The mantle, which contains more iron, magnesium, and calcium than the crust, is hotter and denser because temperature and pressure inside the Earth increase with depth. As a comparison, the mantle might be thought of as the white of a boiled egg. At the center of the Earth lies the core, which is nearly twice as dense as the mantle because its composition is metallic (iron-nickel alloy) rather than stony. Unlike the yolk of an egg, however, the Earth's core is actually made up of two distinct parts: a 2,200 km-thick liquid outer core and a 1,250 km-thick solid inner core. As the Earth rotates, the liquid outer core spins, creating the Earth's magnetic field.
   Not surprisingly, the Earth's internal structure influences plate tectonics. The upper part of the mantle is cooler and more rigid than the deep mantle; in many ways, it behaves like the overlying crust. Together they form a rigid layer of rock called the lithosphere (from lithos, Greek for stone). The lithosphere tends to be thinnest under the oceans and in volcanically active continental areas, such as the Western United States. Averaging at least 80 km in thickness over much of the Earth, the lithosphere has been broken up into the moving plates that contain the world's continents and oceans. Scientists believe that below the lithosphere is a relatively narrow, mobile zone in the mantle called the asthenosphere (from asthenes, Greek for weak). This zone is composed of hot, semi-solid material, which can soften and flow after being subjected to high temperature and pressure over geologic time. The rigid lithosphere is thought to "float" or move about on the slowly flowing asthenosphere.

What Drives the Plates?


Conceptual drawing of assumed convection cells in the mantle (see text). Below a depth of about 700 km, the descending slab begins to soften and flow, losing its form. Below: Sketch showing convection cells commonly seen in boiling water or soup. This analogy, however, does not take into account the huge differences in the size and the flow rates of these cells

From seismic and other geophysical evidence and laboratory experiments, scientists generally agree with Harry Hess' theory that the plate-driving force is the slow movement of hot, softened mantle that lies below the rigid plates. This idea was first considered in the 1930s by Arthur Holmes, the English geologist who later influenced Harry Hess' thinking about seafloor spreading. Holmes speculated that the circular motion of the mantle carried the continents along in much the same way as a conveyor belt. However, at the time that Wegener proposed his theory of continental drift, most scientists still believed the Earth was a solid, motionless body. We now know better. As J. Tuzo Wilson eloquently stated in 1968, "The earth, instead of appearing as an inert statue, is a living, mobile thing." Both the Earth's surface and its interior are in motion. Below the lithospheric plates, at some depth the mantle is partially molten and can flow, albeit slowly, in response to steady forces applied for long periods of time. Just as a solid metal like steel, when exposed to heat and pressure, can be softened and take different shapes, so too can solid rock in the mantle when subjected to heat and pressure in the Earth's interior over millions of years.

The mobile rock beneath the rigid plates is believed to be moving in a circular manner somewhat like a pot of thick soup when heated to boiling. The heated soup rises to the surface, spreads and begins to cool, and then sinks back to the bottom of the pot where it is reheated and rises again. This cycle is repeated over and over to generate what scientists call a convection cell or convective flow. While convective flow can be observed easily in a pot of boiling soup, the idea of such a process stirring up the Earth's interior is much more difficult to grasp. While we know that convective motion in the Earth is much, much slower than that of boiling soup, many unanswered questions remain: How many convection cells exist? Where and how do they originate? What is their structure?

Convection cannot take place without a source of heat. Heat within the Earth comes from two main sources: radioactive decay and residual heat. Radioactive decay, a spontaneous process that is the basis of "isotopic clocks" used to date rocks, involves the loss of particles from the nucleus of an isotope (the parent) to form an isotope of a new element (the daughter). The radioactive decay of naturally occurring chemical elements — most notably uranium, thorium, and potassium — releases energy in the form of heat, which slowly migrates toward the Earth's surface. Residual heat is gravitational energy left over from the formation of the Earth — 4.6 billion years ago — by the "falling together" and compression of cosmic debris. How and why the escape of interior heat becomes concentrated in certain regions to form convection cells remains a mystery.

Until the 1990s, prevailing explanations about what drives plate tectonics have emphasized mantle convection, and most earth scientists believed that seafloor spreading was the primary mechanism. Cold, denser material convects downward and hotter, lighter material rises because of gravity; this movement of material is an essential part of convection. In addition to the convective forces, some geologists argue that the intrusion of magma into the spreading ridge provides an additional force (called "ridge push") to propel and maintain plate movement. Thus, subduction processes are considered to be secondary, a logical but largely passive consequence of seafloor spreading. In recent years however, the tide has turned. Most scientists now favor the notion that forces associated with subduction are more important than seafloor spreading. Professor Seiya Uyeda (Tokai University, Japan), a world-renowned expert in plate tectonics, concluded in his keynote address at a major scientific conference on subduction processes in June 1994 that "subduction . . . plays a more fundamental role than seafloor spreading in shaping the earth's surface features" and "running the plate tectonic machinery." The gravity-controlled sinking of a cold, denser oceanic slab into the subduction zone (called "slab pull") — dragging the rest of the plate along with it — is now considered to be the driving force of plate tectonics.

We know that forces at work deep within the Earth's interior drive plate motion, but we may never fully understand the details. At present, none of the proposed mechanisms can explain all the facets of plate movement; because these forces are buried so deeply, no mechanism can be tested directly and proven beyond reasonable doubt. The fact that the tectonic plates have moved in the past and are still moving today is beyond dispute, but the details of why and how they move will continue to challenge scientists far into the future.

What is a Tectonic Plate?


A tectonic plate (also called lithospheric plate) is a massive, irregularly shaped slab of solid rock, generally composed of both continental and oceanic lithosphere. Plate size can vary greatly, from a few hundred to thousands of kilometers across; the Pacific and Antarctic Plates are among the largest. Plate thickness also varies greatly, ranging from less than 15 km for young oceanic lithosphere to about 200 km or more for ancient continental lithosphere (for example, the interior parts of North and South America).

How do these massive slabs of solid rock float despite their tremendous weight? The answer lies in the composition of the rocks. Continental crust is composed of granitic rocks which are made up of relatively lightweight minerals such as quartz and feldspar. By contrast, oceanic crust is composed of basaltic rocks, which are much denser and heavier. The variations in plate thickness are nature's way of partly compensating for the imbalance in the weight and density of the two types of crust. Because continental rocks are much lighter, the crust under the continents is much thicker (as much as 100 km) whereas the crust under the oceans is generally only about 5 km thick. Like icebergs, only the tips of which are visible above water, continents have deep "roots" to support their elevations.

Most of the boundaries between individual plates cannot be seen, because they are hidden beneath the oceans. Yet oceanic plate boundaries can be mapped accurately from outer space by measurements from GEOSAT satellites. Earthquake and volcanic activity is concentrated near these boundaries. Tectonic plates probably developed very early in the Earth's 4.6-billion-yearhistory, and they have been drifting about on the surface ever since-like slow-moving bumper cars repeatedly clustering together and then separating.

 Like many features on the Earth's surface, plates change over time. Those composed partly or entirely of oceanic lithosphere can sink under another plate, usually a lighter, mostly continental plate, and eventually disappear completely. This process is happening now off the coast of Oregon and Washington. The small Juan de Fuca Plate, a remnant of the formerly much larger oceanic Farallon Plate, will someday be entirely consumed as it continues to sink beneath the North American Plate.

Farallon Plate

These four diagrams illustrate the shrinking of the formerly very large Farallon Plate, as it was progressively consumed beneath the North American and Caribbean Plates, leaving only the present-day Juan de Fuca, Rivera, and Cocos Plates as small remnants (see text). Large solid arrows show the present-day sense of relative movement between the Pacific and North American Plates. (Modified from USGS Professional Paper 1515).

Understanding Plate Boundaries

Scientists now have a fairly good understanding of how the plates move and how such movements relate to earthquake activity. Most movement occurs along narrow zones between plates where the results of plate-tectonic forces are most evident.
There are four types of plate boundaries:

  • Divergent boundaries -- where new crust is generated as the plates pull away from each other.
  • Convergent boundaries -- where crust is destroyed as one plate dives under another.
  • Transform boundaries -- where crust is neither produced nor destroyed as the plates slide horizontally past each other.
  • Plate boundary zones -- broad belts in which boundaries are not well defined and the effects of plate interaction are unclear.
Artist's cross section illustrating the main types of plate boundaries (see text); East African Rift Zone is a good example of a continental rift zone. (Cross section by José F. Vigil from This Dynamic Planet — a wall map produced jointly by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.)

[Below is an explanation of select convergent boundaries; for an explanation of other boundaries refer to the full text at Understanding Plate Boundaries on the USGS site.]

Convergent Boundaries

The size of the Earth has not changed significantly during the past 600 million years, and very likely not since shortly after its formation 4.6 billion years ago. The Earth's unchanging size implies that the crust must be destroyed at about the same rate as it is being created, as Harry Hess surmised. Such destruction (recycling) of crust takes place along convergent boundaries where plates are moving toward each other, and sometimes one plate sinks (is subducted) under another. The location where sinking of a plate occurs is called a subduction zone.

The type of convergence — called by some a very slow "collision" — that takes place between plates depends on the kind of lithosphere involved. Convergence can occur between an oceanic and a largely continental plate, or between two largely oceanic plates, or between two largely continental plates.

Oceanic-Continental Convergence

If by magic we could pull a plug and drain the Pacific Ocean, we would see a most amazing sight — a number of long narrow, curving trenches thousands of kilometers long and 8 to 10 km deep cutting into the ocean floor. Trenches are the deepest parts of the ocean floor and are created by subduction.

On 9 June 1994, a magnitude-8.3 earthquake struck about 320 km northeast of La Paz, Bolivia, at a depth of 636 km. This earthquake, within the subduction zone between the Nazca Plate and the South American Plate, was one of deepest and largest subduction earthquakes recorded in South America. Fortunately, even though this powerful earthquake was felt as far away as Minnesota and Toronto, Canada, it caused no major damage because of its great depth.


Ring of Fire. USGS.
The convergence of the Nazca and South American Plates has deformed and pushed up limestone strata to form towering peaks of the Andes, as seen here in the Pachapaqui mining area in Peru. (Photograph by George Ericksen, USGS.)

Continental-Continental Convergence

The collision between the Indian and Eurasian plates has pushed up the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau.

The Himalayan mountain range dramatically demonstrates one of the most visible and spectacular consequences of plate tectonics. When two continents meet head-on, neither is subducted because the continental rocks are relatively light and, like two colliding icebergs, resist downward motion. Instead, the crust tends to buckle and be pushed upward or sideways. The collision of India into Asia 50 million years ago caused the Eurasian Plate to crumple up and override the Indian Plate. After the collision, the slow continuous convergence of the two plates over millions of years pushed up the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau to their present heights. Most of this growth occurred during the past 10 million years. The Himalayas, towering as high as 8,854 m above sea level, form the highest continental mountains in the world. Moreover, the neighboring Tibetan Plateau, at an average elevation of about 4,600 m, is higher than all the peaks in the Alps except for Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa, and is well above the summits of most mountains in the United States.

Indian and Eurasian Plates and Himalayas

Cartoon cross sections showing the meeting of these two plates before and after their collision. The reference points (small squares) show the amount of uplift of an imaginary point in the Earth's crust during this mountain-building process.


Left: Location of Rocks comprising Mount Everest, before erosion. Above: Sunset view of towering, snow-capped Mt. Everest, from the village of Lobuche (Solu-khumbu), Nepal. (Photograph by Gimmy Park Li.)
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