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Old Tuesday, November 13, 2007
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Default Plate Tectonics

Plate Tectonics

Plate Tectonics, theory that the outer shell of the earth is made up of thin, rigid plates that move relative to each other. The theory of plate tectonics was formulated during the early 1960s, and it revolutionized the field of geology. Scientists have successfully used it to explain many geological events, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions as well as mountain building and the formation of the oceans and continents.
Plate tectonics arose from an earlier theory proposed by German scientist Alfred Wegener in 1912. Looking at the shapes of the continents, Wegener found that they fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Using this observation, along with geological evidence he found on different continents, he developed the theory of continental drift, which states that today’s continents were once joined together into one large landmass.

Geologists of the 1950s and 1960s found evidence supporting the idea of tectonic plates and their movement. They applied Wegener’s theory to various aspects of the changing earth and used this evidence to confirm continental drift. By 1968 scientists integrated most geologic activities into a theory called the New Global Tectonics, or more commonly, Plate Tectonics.

Tectonic plates are made of either oceanic or continental crust and the very top part of the mantle, a layer of rock inside the earth. This crust and upper mantle form what is called the lithosphere. Under the lithosphere lies a fluid rock layer called the asthenosphere. The rocks in the asthenosphere move in a fluid manner because of the high temperatures and pressures found there. Tectonic plates are able to float upon the fluid asthenosphere because they are made of rigid lithosphere. See also Earth: Plate Tectonics.

A -Continental Crust
The earth’s solid surface is about 40 percent continental crust. Continental crust is much older, thicker and less dense than oceanic crust. The thinnest continental crust, between plates that are moving apart, is about 15 km (about 9 mi) thick. In other places, such as mountain ranges, the crust may be as much as 75 km (47 mi) thick. Near the surface, it is composed of rocks that are felsic (made up of minerals including feldspar and silica). Deeper in the continental crust, the composition is mafic (made of magnesium, iron, and other minerals).

B -Oceanic Crust
Oceanic crust makes up the other 60 percent of the earth’s solid surface. Oceanic crust is, in general, thin and dense. It is constantly being produced at the bottom of the oceans in places called mid-ocean ridges—undersea volcanic mountain chains formed at plate boundaries where there is a build-up of ocean crust. This production of crust does not increase the physical size of the earth, so the material produced at mid-ocean ridges must be recycled, or consumed, somewhere else. Geologists believe it is recycled back into the earth in areas called subduction zones, where one plate sinks underneath another and the crust of the sinking plate melts back down into the earth. Oceanic crust is continually recycled so that its age is generally not greater than 200 million years. Oceanic crust averages between 5 and 10 km (between 3 and 6 mi) thick. It is composed of a top layer of sediment, a middle layer of rock called basalt, and a bottom layer of rock called gabbro. Both basalt and gabbro are dark-colored igneous, or volcanic, rocks.

C -Plate Sizes
Currently, there are seven large and several small plates. The largest plates include the Pacific plate, the North American plate, the Eurasian plate, the Antarctic plate, and the African plate. Smaller plates include the Cocos plate, the Nazca plate, the Caribbean plate, and the Gorda plate. Plate sizes vary a great deal. The Cocos plate is 2000 km (1400 mi) wide, while the Pacific plate is the largest plate at nearly 14,000 km (nearly 9000 mi) wide.

Geologists study how tectonic plates move relative to a fixed spot in the earth’s mantle and how they move relative to each other. The first type of motion is called absolute motion, and it can lead to strings of volcanoes. The second kind of motion, called relative motion, leads to different types of boundaries between plates: plates moving apart from one another form a divergent boundary, plates moving toward one another form a convergent boundary, and plates that slide along one another form a transform plate boundary. In rare instances, three plates may meet in one place, forming a triple junction. Current plate movement is making the Pacific Ocean smaller, the Atlantic Ocean larger, and the Himalayan mountains taller.

A -Measuring Plate Movement
Geologists discovered absolute plate motion when they found chains of extinct submarine volcanoes. A chain of dead volcanoes forms as a plate moves over a plume, a source of magma, or molten rock, deep within the mantle. These plumes stay in one spot, and each one creates a hot spot in the plate above the plume. These hot spots can form into a volcano on the surface of the earth. An active volcano indicates a hot spot as well as the youngest region of a volcanic chain. As the plate moves, a new volcano forms in the plate over the place where the hot spot occurs. The volcanoes in the chain get progressively older and become extinct as they move away from the hot spot (see Hawaii: Formation of the Islands and Volcanoes).

Scientists use hot spots to measure the speed of tectonic plates relative to a fixed point. To do this, they determine the age of extinct volcanoes and their distance from a hot spot. They then use these numbers to calculate how far the plate has moved in the time since each volcano formed. Today, the plates move at velocities up to 18.5 cm per year (7.3 in per year). On average, they move nearly 4 to 7 cm per year (2 to 3 in per year).

B -Divergent Plate Boundaries
Divergent plate boundaries occur where two plates are moving apart from each other. When plates break apart, the lithosphere thins and ruptures to form a divergent plate boundary. In the oceanic crust, this process is called seafloor spreading, because the splitting plates are spreading apart from each other. On land, divergent plate boundaries create rift valleys—deep valley depressions formed as the land slowly splits apart.

When seafloor spreading occurs, magma, or molten rock material, rises to the sea floor surface along the rupture. As the magma cools, it forms new oceanic crust and lithosphere. The new lithosphere is less dense, so it rises, or floats, higher above older lithosphere, producing long submarine mountain chains known as mid-ocean ridges. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is an underwater mountain range created at a divergent plate boundary in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It is part of a worldwide system of ridges made by seafloor spreading. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is currently spreading at a rate of 2.5 cm per year (1 in per year). The mid-ocean ridges today are 60,000 km (about 40,000 mi) long, forming the largest continuous mountain chain on earth. Earthquakes, faults, underwater volcanic eruptions, and vents, or openings, along the mountain crests produce rugged seafloor features, or topography.
Divergent boundaries on land cause rifting, in which broad areas of land are uplifted, or moved upward. These uplifts and faulting along the rift result in rift valleys. Examples of rift valleys are found at the Krafla Volcano rift area in Iceland as well as at the East African Rift Zone—part of the Great Rift Valley that extends from Syria to Mozambique and out to the Red Sea. In these areas, volcanic eruptions and shallow earthquakes are common.

C -Convergent Plate Boundaries
Convergent plate boundaries occur where plates are consumed, or recycled back into the earth’s mantle. There are three types of convergent plate boundaries: between two oceanic plates, between an oceanic plate and a continental plate, and between two continental plates. Subduction zones are convergent regions where oceanic crust is thrust below either oceanic crust or continental crust. Many earthquakes occur at subduction zones, and volcanic ridges and oceanic trenches form in these areas.

In the ocean, convergent plate boundaries occur where an oceanic plate descends beneath another oceanic plate. Chains of active volcanoes develop 100 to 150 km (60 to 90 mi) above the descending slab as magma rises from under the plate. Also, where the crust slides down into the earth, a trench forms. Together, the volcanoes and trench form an intra-oceanic island arc and trench system. A good example of such a system is the Mariana Trench system in the western Pacific Ocean, where the Pacific plate is descending under the Philippine plate. In these areas, earthquakes are frequent but not large. Stress in and behind the arc often causes the arc and trench system to move toward the incoming plate, which opens small ocean basins behind the arc. This process is called back-arc seafloor spreading.

Convergent boundaries that occur between the ocean and land create continental margin arc and trench systems near the margins, or edges, of continents. Volcanoes also form here. Stress can develop in these areas and cause the rock layers to fold, leading to earthquake faults, or breaks in the earth’s crust called thrust faults. The folding and thrust faulting thicken the continental crust, producing high mountains. Many of the world’s large destructive earthquakes and major mountain chains, such as the Andes Mountains of western South America, occur along these convergent plate boundaries.

When two continental plates converge, the incoming plate drives against and under the opposing continent. This often affects hundreds of miles of each continent and, at times, doubles the normal thickness of continental crust. Colliding continents cause earthquakes and form mountains and plateaus. The collision of India with Asia has produced the Himalayan Mountains and Tibetan Plateau.

D -Transform Plate Boundaries
A transform plate boundary, also known as a transform fault system, forms as plates slide past one another in opposite directions without converging or diverging. Early in the plate tectonic revolution, geologists proposed that transform faults were a new class of fault because they “transformed” plate motions from one plate boundary to another. Canadian geophysicist J. Tuzlo Wilson studied the direction of faulting along fracture zones that divide the mid-ocean ridge system and confirmed that transform plate boundaries were different than convergent and divergent boundaries. Within the ocean, transform faults are usually simple, straight fault lines that form at a right angle to ocean ridge spreading centers. As plates slide past each other, the transform faults can divide the centers of ocean ridge spreading. By cutting across the ridges of the undersea mountain chains, they create steep cliff slopes. Transform fault systems can also connect spreading centers to subduction zones or other transform fault systems within the continental crust. As a transform plate boundary cuts perpendicularly across the edges of the continental crust near the borders of the continental and oceanic crust, the result is a system such as the San Andreas transform fault system in California.

E -Triple Junctions
Rarely, a group of three plates, or a combination of plates, faults, and trenches, meet at a point called a triple junction. The East African Rift Zone is a good example of a triple plate junction. The African plate is splitting into two plates and moving away from the Arabian plate as the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden. Another example is the Mendocino Triple Junction, which occurs at the intersection of two transform faults (the San Andreas and Mendocino faults) and the plate boundary between the Pacific and Gorda plates.

F -Current Plate Movement
Plate movement is changing the sizes of our oceans and the shapes of our continents. The Pacific plate moves at an absolute motion rate of 9 cm per year (4 in per year) away from the East Pacific Rise spreading center, the undersea volcanic region in the eastern Pacific Ocean that runs parallel to the western coast of South America. On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, near Japan, the Pacific plate is being subducted, or consumed under, the oceanic arc systems found there. The Pacific Ocean is getting smaller as the North and South American plates move west. The Atlantic Ocean is getting larger as plate movement causes North and South America to move away from Europe and Africa. Since the Eurasian and Antarctic plates are nearly stationary, the Indian Ocean at present is not significantly expanding or shrinking. The plate that includes Australia is just beginning to collide with the plate that forms Southeast Asia, while India’s plate is still colliding with Asia. India moves north at 5 cm per year (2 in per year) as it crashes into Asia, while Australia moves slightly farther away from Antarctica each year.

Although plate tectonics has explained most of the surface features of the earth, the driving force of plate tectonics is still unclear. According to geologists, a model that explains plate movement should include three forces. Those three forces are the pull of gravity; convection currents, or the circulating movement of fluid rocky material in the mantle; and thermal plumes, or vertical columns of molten rocky material in the mantle.

A -Plate Movement Caused by Gravity
Geologists believe that tectonic plates move primarily as a result of their own weight, or the force of gravity acting on them. Since the plates are slightly denser than the underlying asthenosphere, they tend to sink. Their weight causes them to slide down gentle gradients, such as those formed by the higher ocean ridge crests, to the lower subduction zones. Once the plate’s leading edge has entered a subduction zone and penetrated the mantle, the weight of the slab itself will tend to pull the rest of the plate toward the trench. This sinking action is known as slab-pull because the sinking plate edge pulls the remainder of the plate behind it. Another kind of action, called ridge-push, is the opposite of slab-pull, in that gravity also causes plates to slide away from mid-ocean ridges. Scientists believe that plates pushing against one another also causes plate movement.

B -Convection Currents
In 1929 British geologist Arthur Holmes proposed the concept of convection currents—the movement of molten material circulating deep within the earth—and the concept was modified to explain plate movement. A convection current occurs when hot, molten, rocky material floats up within the asthenosphere, then cools as it approaches the surface. As it cools, the material becomes denser and begins to sink again, moving in a circular pattern. Geologists once thought that convection currents were the primary driving force of plate movement. They now believe that convection currents are not the primary cause, but are an effect of sinking plates that contributes to the overall movement of the plates.

C -Thermal Plumes
Some scientists have proposed the concept of thermal plumes, vertical columns of molten material, as an additional force of plate movement. Thermal plumes do not circulate like convection currents. Rather, they are columns of material that rise up through the asthenosphere and appear on the surface of the earth as hot spots. Scientists estimate thermal plumes to be between 100 and 250 km (60 and 160 mi) in diameter. They may originate within the asthenosphere or even deeper within the earth at the boundary between the mantle and the core.

Scientists have also observed tectonic activity and fracturing on several moons of other planets in our solar system. Starting in 1985, images from the Voyager probes indicated that Saturn’s satellite Enceladus and Uranus’ moon Miranda also show signs of being tectonically active. In 1989 the Voyager probes sent photographs and data to Earth of volcanic activity on Neptune’s satellite Triton. In 1995 the Galileo probe began to send data and images of tectonic activity on three of Jupiter’s four Galilean satellites. The information that scientists gather from space missions such as these helps increase their understanding of the solar system and our planet. They can apply this knowledge to better understand the forces that created the earth and that continue to act upon it.

Scientists believe that Enceladus has a very tectonically active surface. It has several different terrain types, including craters, plains, and many faults that cross the surface. Miranda has fault canyons and terraced land formations that indicate a diverse tectonic environment. Scientists studying the Voyager 2 images of Triton found evidence of an active geologic past as well as ongoing eruptions of ice volcanoes.

Scientists are still gathering information from the Galileo probe of the Jupiter moon system. Three of Jupiter’s four Galilean satellites show signs of being tectonically active. Europa, Ganymede, and Io all exhibit various features that indicate tectonic motion or volcanism. Europa’s surface is broken apart into large plates similar to the plates found on Earth. The plate movement indicates that the crust is brittle and that the plates move over the top of a softer, more fluid layer. Ganymede probably has a metallic inner core and at least two outer layers that make up a crust and mantle. Io may also have a giant iron core interior that causes the active tectonics and volcanism. It is believed that Io has a partially molten rock mantle and crust. See also Planetary Science: Volcanism and Tectonic Activity.

The theory of plate tectonics arose from several previous geologic theories and discoveries. As early as the 16th century, explorers began examining the coastlines of Africa and South America and proposed that these continents were once connected. In the 20th century, scientists proposed theories that the continents moved or drifted apart from each other. Additionally, in the 1950s scientists proposed that the earth’s magnetic poles wander, leading to more evidence, such as rocks with similar magnetic patterns around the world, that the continents had drifted. More recently, scientists examining the seafloor have discovered that it is spreading as new seafloor is created, and through this work they have discovered that the magnetic polarity of the earth has changed several times throughout the earth's history. The theory of plate tectonics revolutionized earth sciences by providing a framework that could explain these discoveries, as well as events such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, mountain building and the formation of the continents and oceans. See also Earthquake.

A -Continental Drift
Beginning in the late 16th century and early 17th century, many people, including Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius and English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon, were intrigued by the shapes of the South American and African coastlines and the possibility that these continents were once connected. In 1912, German scientist Alfred Wegener eventually developed the idea that the continents were at one time connected into the theory of continental drift. Scientists of the early 20th century found evidence of continental drift in the similarity of the coastlines and geologic features on both continents. Geologists found rocks of the same age and type on opposite sides of the ocean, fossils of similar animals and plants, and similar ancient climate indicators, such as glaciation patterns. British geologist

Arthur Holmes proposed that convection currents drove the drifting movement of continents. Most earth scientists did not seriously consider the theory of continental drift until the 1960s when scientists began to discover other evidence, such as polar wandering, seafloor spreading, and reversals of the earth’s magnetic field. See also Continent.

B -Polar Wandering
In the 1950s, physicists in England became interested in the observation that certain kinds of rocks produced a magnetic field. They soon decided that the magnetic fields were remnant, or left over, magnetism acquired from the earth’s magnetic field as the rocks cooled and solidified from the hot magma that formed them. Scientists measured the orientation and direction of the acquired magnetic fields and, from these orientations, calculated the direction of the rock’s magnetism and the distance from the place the rock was found to the magnetic poles. As calculations from rocks of varying ages began to accumulate, scientists calculated the position of the earth’s magnetic poles over time. The position of the poles varied depending on where the rocks were collected, and the idea of a polar wander path began to form. When sample paths of polar wander from two continents, such as North America and Europe, were compared, they coincided as if the continents were once joined. This new science and methodology became known as the discipline of paleomagnetism. As a result, discussion of the theory of continental drift increased, but most earth scientists remained skeptical.

C -Seafloor Spreading
During the 1950s, as people began creating detailed maps of the world’s ocean floor, they discovered a mid-ocean ridge system of mountains nearly 60,000 km (nearly 40,000 mi) long. This ridge goes all the way around the globe. American geologist Harry H. Hess proposed that this mountain chain was the place where new ocean floor was created and that the continents moved as a result of the expansion of the ocean floors. This process was termed seafloor spreading by American geophysicist Robert S. Dietz in 1961. Hess also proposed that since the size of the earth seems to have remained constant, the seafloor must also be recycled back into the mantle beneath mountain chains and volcanic arcs along the deep trenches on the ocean floor.

These studies also found marine magnetic anomalies, or differences, on the sea floor. The anomalies are changes, or switches, in the north and south polarity of the magnetic rock of the seafloor. Scientists discovered that the switches make a striped pattern of the positive and negative magnetic anomalies: one segment, or stripe, is positive, and the segment next to it is negative. The stripes are parallel to the mid-ocean ridge crest, and the pattern is the same on both sides of that crest. Scientists could not explain the cause of these anomalies until they discovered that the earth’s magnetic field periodically reverses direction.

D -Magnetic Field Reversals
In 1963, British scientists Fred J. Vine and Drummond H. Matthews combined their observations of the marine magnetic anomalies with the concept of reversals of the earth’s magnetic field. They proposed that the marine magnetic anomalies were a “tape recording” of the spreading of the ocean floor as the earth’s magnetic field reversed its direction. At the same time, other geophysicists were studying lava flows from many parts of the world to see how these flows revealed the record of reversals of the direction of the earth’s magnetic field. These studies showed that nearly four reversals have occurred over the past 5 million years. The concept of magnetic field reversals was a breakthrough that explained the magnetic polarity switches seen in seafloor spreading as well as the concept of similar magnetic patterns in the rocks used to demonstrate continental drift.

E -Revolution in Geology
The theory of plate tectonics tied together the concepts of continental drift, polar wandering, seafloor spreading, and magnetic field reversals into a single theory that completely changed the science of geology. Geologists finally had one theory that could explain all the different evidence they had accumulated to support these previous theories and discoveries. Geologists now use the theory of plate tectonics to integrate geologic events, to explain the occurrence of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and to explain the formation of mountain ranges and oceans.
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