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Plate Tectonics

The Mechanism

The main features of plate tectonics are:

• The Earth's surface is covered by a series


of crustal plates.
• The ocean floors are continually moving,
spreading from the center, sinking at the
edges, and being regenerated.
• Convection currents beneath the plates
move the crustal plates in different
directions.
• The source of heat driving the convection currents is radioactivity deep in the Earths mantle.

Advances in sonic depth recording during World War II and the subsequent development of the nuclear
resonance type magnometer (proton-precession magnometer) led to detailed mapping of the ocean floor and
with it came many observation that led scientists like Howard Hess and R. Deitz to revive Holmes'
convection theory. Hess and Deitz modified the theory considerably and called the new theory "Sea-floor
Spreading". Among the seafloor features that supported the sea-floor spreading hypothesis were: mid-
oceanic ridges, deep sea trenches, island arcs, geomagnetic patterns, and fault patterns.

Mid-Oceanic Ridges
The mid-oceanic ridges rise 3000 meters from the ocean floor and are more than 2000 kilometers wide
surpassing the Himalayas in size. The mapping of the seafloor also revealed that these huge underwater
mountain ranges have a deep trench which bisects the length of the ridges and in places is more than 2000
meters deep. Research into the heat flow from the ocean floor during the early 1960s revealed that the
greatest heat flow was centered at the crests of these mid-oceanic ridges. Seismic studies show that the mid-
oceanic ridges experience an elevated number of earthquakes. All these observations indicate intense
geological activity at the mid-oceanic ridges.

Geomagnetic Anomalies
Occasionally, at random intervals, the Earth's magnetic field reverses. New rock formed from magma
records the orientation of Earth's magnetic field at the time the magma cools. Study of the sea floor with
magnometers revealed "stripes" of alternating magnetization parallel to the mid-oceanic ridges. This is
evidence for continuous formation of new rock at the ridges. As more rock forms, older rock is pushed
farther away from the ridge, producing symmetrical stripes to either side of the ridge. In the diagram to the
right, the dark stripes represent ocean floor generated during "reversed" polar orientation and the lighter
stripes represent the polar orientation we have today. Notice that the patterns on either side of the line
representing the mid-oceanic ridge are mirror images of one another. The shaded stripes also represent older
and older rock as they move away from the mid-oceanic ridge. Geologists have determined that rocks found
in different parts of the planet with similar ages have the same magnetic characteristics.

Deep Sea Trenches


The deepest waters are found in oceanic trenches, which plunge as deep as 35,000 feet below the ocean
surface. These trenches are usually long and narrow, and run parallel to and near the oceans margins. They
are often associated with and parallel to large continental mountain ranges. There is also an observed
parallel association of trenches and island arcs. Like the mid-oceanic ridges, the trenches are seismically
active, but unlike the ridges they have low levels of heat flow. Scientists also began to realize that the
youngest regions of the ocean floor were along the mid-oceanic ridges, and that the age of the ocean floor
increased as the distance from the ridges increased. In addition, it has been determined that the oldest
seafloor often ends in the deep-sea trenches.

Island Arcs
Chains of islands are found throughout the oceans and especially in the western Pacific margins; the
Aleutians, Kuriles, Japan, Ryukus, Philippines, Marianas, Indonesia, Solomons, New Hebrides, and the
Tongas, are some examples.. These "Island arcs" are usually situated along deep sea trenches and are
situated on the continental side of the trench.

These observations, along with many other studies of our planet, support the theory that underneath the
Earth's crust (the lithosphere: a solid array of plates) is a malleable layer of heated rock known as the
asthenosphere which is heated by radioactive decay of elements such as Uranium, Thorium, and Potassium.
Because the radioactive source of heat is deep within the mantle, the fluid asthenosphere circulates as
convection currents underneath the solid lithosphere. This heated layer is the source of lava we see in
volcanos, the source of heat that drives
hot springs and geysers, and the source
of raw material which pushes up the
mid-oceanic ridges and forms new
ocean floor. Magma continuously wells
upwards at the mid-oceanic ridges
(arrows) producing currents of magma
flowing in opposite directions and thus
generating the forces that pull the sea
floor apart at the mid-oceanic ridges. As
the ocean floor is spread apart cracks
appear in the middle of the ridges
allowing molten magma to surface
through the cracks to form the newest
ocean floor. As the ocean floor moves
away from the mid-oceanic ridge it will eventually come into contact with a continental plate and will be
subducted underneath the continent. Finally, the lithosphere will be driven back into the asthenosphere
where it returns to a heated state.

The Rock Cycle is a group of changes. Igneous rock can change into sedimentary rock or into metamorphic
rock. Sedimentary rock can change into metamorphic rock or into igneous rock. Metamorphic rock can
change into igneous or sedimentary rock.

Igneous rock forms when magma cools and makes crystals. Magma is a hot liquid made of melted minerals.
The minerals can form crystals when they cool. Igneous rock can form underground, where the magma
cools slowly. Or, igneous rock can form above ground, where the magma cools quickly.

When it pours out on Earth's surface, magma is called lava. Yes, the same liquid rock matter that you see
coming out of volcanoes.

On Earth's surface, wind and water can break rock into pieces. They can also carry rock pieces to another
place. Usually, the rock pieces, called sediments, drop from the wind or water to make a layer. The layer can
be buried under other layers of sediments. After a long time the sediments can be cemented together to
make sedimentary rock. In this way, igneous rock can become sedimentary rock.

All rock can be heated. But where does the heat come from? Inside Earth there is heat from pressure (push
your hands together very hard and feel the heat). There is heat from friction (rub your hands together and
feel the heat). There is also heat from radioactive decay (the process that gives us nuclear power plants that
make electricity).

So, what does the heat do to the rock? It bakes the rock.

Baked rock does not melt, but it does change. It forms crystals. If it has crystals already, it forms larger
crystals. Because this rock changes, it is called metamorphic. Remember that a caterpillar changes to
become a butterfly. That change is called metamorphosis. Metamorphosis can occur in rock when they are
heated to 300 to 700 degrees Celsius.

When Earth's tectonic plates move around, they produce heat. When they collide, they build mountains and
metamorphose (met-ah-MORE-foes) the rock.

The rock cycle continues. Mountains made of metamorphic rocks can be broken up and washed away by
streams. New sediments from these mountains can make new sedimentary rock.

The rock cycle never stops.

Plate Tectonics, the Cause of Earthquakes

The plates consist of an outer layer of the Earth, the lithosphere, which is cool enough to behave as a more
or less rigid shell. Occasionally the hot asthenosphere of the Earth finds a weak place in the lithosphere to
rise buoyantly as a plume, or hotspot. The satellite image below shows the volcanic islands of the Galapagos
hotspot.
Only lithosphere has the strength and
the brittle behavior to fracture in an
earthquake.
The map below locates earthquakes
around the globe. They are not evenly
distributed; the boundaries between the
plates grind against each other,
producing most earthquakes. So the
lines of earthquakes help define the
plates.
(from NASA)
(from the USGS)

In cross section, the Earth releases its internal heat by convecting, or boiling much like a pot of pudding on
the stove. Hot asthenospheric mantle rises to the surface and spreads laterally, transporting oceans and
continents as on a slow conveyor belt. The speed of this motion is a few centimeters per year, about as fast
as your fingernails grow. The new lithosphere, created at the ocean spreading centers, cools as it ages and
eventually becomes dense enough to sink back into the mantle. The subducted crust releases water to form
volcanic island chains above, and after a few hundred million years will be heated and recycled back to the
spreading centers.
Earthquake occurrence in different plate tectonic settings:

The map below of Earth's solid surface shows many of the features caused by plate tectonics. The oceanic
ridges are the asthenospheric spreading centers, creating new oceanic crust. Subduction zones appear as
deep oceanic trenches. Most of the continental mountain belts occur where plates are pressing against one
another. The white
squares locate
examples given
here of the
different tectonic
and earthquake
environments.
(topography from NOAA)

There are three main plate tectonic environments: extensional, transform, and compressional. Plate
boundaries in different localities are subject to different
inter-plate stresses, producing these three types of
earthquakes. Each type has its own special hazards.

At spreading ridges, or similar extensional boundaries,


earthquakes are shallow, aligned strictly along the axis of
spreading, and show an extensional mechanism. Earthquakes
in extensional environments tend to be smaller than
magnitude 8. (Click here for an explanation of earthquake
magnitude).

A close-up topographic picture of the Juan de Fuca spreading ridge, offshore of the Pacific Northwest,
shows the turned-up edges of the spreading center. As crust moves away from the ridge it cools and sinks.
The lateral offsets in the ridge are joined by transform faults.
(from RIDGE, LDEO/Columbia Univ.)

A satellite view of the Sinai shows


two arms of the Red Sea spreading
ridge, exposed on land.

(from NASA)

Extensional ridges exist elsewhere


in the solar system, although they
never attain the globe-encircling
extent the oceanic ridges have on
Earth. This synthetic perspective of
a large volcano on Venus is
.
looking up the large rift on its flank.
(from NASA/JPL)

(from the USGS)


At transforms, earthquakes are shallow, running as deep as 25 km; mechanisms indicate strike-slip motion.
Transforms tend to have earthquakes smaller than magnitude 8.5.

The San Andreas fault in California is a nearby example of a transform, separating the Pacific from the
North American plate. At transforms the plates mostly slide
past each other laterally, producing less sinking or lifing of
the ground than extensional or compressional environments.
The yellow dots below locate earthquakes along strands of
this fault system in the San Francisco Bay area.

(from NASA/JSC; topography from NOAA)

At compressional boundaries, earthquakes are found in


several settings ranging from the very near surface to several
hundred kilometers depth, since the coldness of the
subducting plate permits brittle failure down to as much as
700 km. Compressional boundaries host Earth's largest
quakes, with some events on subduction zones in Alaska and
Chile having exceeded magnitude 9.

This oblique orbital view looking east over Indonesia shows the clouded tops of the chain of large
volcanoes. The topography below shows the Indian plate, streaked by hotspot traces and healed transforms,
subducting at the Javan Trench.

Sometimes continental sections of plates collide; both are too light for subduction to occur. The satellite
image below shows the bent and rippled rock layers of the Zagros Mountains in southern Iran, where the
Arabian plate is impacting the Iranian plate.
(from NASA/JSC)

Nevada has a complex plate-tectonic environment,


dominated by a combination of extensional and
transform motions. The Great Basin shares some
features with the great Tibetan and Anatolian
plateaus. All three have large areas of high
elevation, and show varying amounts of rifting
and extension distributed across the regions. This
is unlike oceanic spreading centers, where rifting
is concentrated narrowly along the plate boundary.
The numerous north-south mountain ranges that
dominate the landscape from Reno to Salt Lake
City are the consequence of substantial east-west extension, in which the total extension may be as much as
a factor of two over the past 20 million years.

(Topo map from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia Univ.; motions added from published
GPS results.)
The extension seems to be most active at the eastern and western margins of the region, i.e. the mountain
fronts running near Salt Lake City and Reno. The western Great Basin also has a significant component of
shearing motion superimposed on this rifting. This is part of the Pacific - North America plate motion. The
total motion is about 5 cm/year. Of this, about 4 cm/yr takes place on the San Andreas fault system near the
California coast, and the remainder, about 1 cm/year, occurs east of the Sierra Nevada mountains, in a zone
geologists know as the Walker Lane.
As a result, Nevada hosts hundreds of active extensional faults, and several significant transform fault zones
as well. While not as actively or rapidly deforming as the plate boundary in California, Nevada has
earthquakes over much larger areas. While some regions in California, such as the western Sierra Nevada,
appear to be isolated from earthquake activity, earthquakes have occurred everywhere in Nevada.
Plate Tectonics
It is now uniformly agreed that the crustal plates of the Earth are in horizontal motion. This is called
continental drift colloquially, and plate tectonics (see also this summary) in technically more precise
language. This is newly won knowledge. Although the idea has been around for almost a century, it was not
generally accepted (indeed, was often considered crackpot) until the last few decades.

The following animation illustrates the drift of the continental plates over the last 750 million years
(Source). Here is a better animation (but it is a 1.44 MB animated GIF file).

Animation of the drift of the continental plates over the last 750 million years.
Click the "stop" button on your browser to stop the animation at a particular
time. Restart the animation by hitting the "reload" button on your browser. Click
on the geologic time periods on the right for more information on those periods.

The Drift of the Continents

We now believe that the surface of the Earth looked very different 200 million years ago from its present
appearance. In particular, the continents have changed because they sit on blocks of the lithosphere that are
in horizontal motion with respect to each other, and indeed they continue to change because the horizontal
motion continues. The following figure illustrates.
The separation of the continents by plate tectonics

The lithosphere and the aesthenosphere

The present continents separated from two supercontinents called Laurasia and Gondwanaland through this
process of plate tectonics. The two supercontinents may have once been united in a single supercontinent
called Pangaea, though this is less certain.

The Origin of Plate Tectonics

What is the origin of plate tectonics? The continents drift slowly (the timescale for substantial change is 10-
100 million years), but that they drift at all is remarkable. The following figure illustrates the structure of the
first 100-200 kilometers of the Earth's interior, and provides an answer to this question.
The crust is thin, varying from a few tens of kilometers thick beneath the continents to to less than 10 km
thick beneath the many of the oceans. The crust and upper mantle together constitute the lithosphere, which
is typically 50-100 km thick and is broken into large plates (not illustrated). These plates sit on the
aesthenosphere.

The aesthenosphere is kept plastic (deformable) largely through heat


generated by radioactive decay. The material that is decaying is
primarily radioactive isotopes of light elements like aluminum and
magnesium. This heat source is small on an absolute scale (the
corresponding heat flow at the surface out of the Earth is only about
1/6000 of the Solar energy falling on the surface). Nevertheless,
because of the insulating properties of the Earth's rocks this is sufficient to keep the aesthenosphere plastic
in consistency.

Convection Currents

Very slow convection currents flow in this plastic layer, and these currents provide horizontal forces on the
plates of the lithosphere much as convection in a pan of boiling water causes a piece of cork on the surface
of the water to be pushed sideways (following figure).
Of course, the timescale for convection in the pan is seconds and for plate tectonics is 10-100 million years,
but the principles are similar. Thus, we see that differentiation is crucial to plate tectonics on the Earth,
because it is responsible for producing an interior that can support tectonic motion.

The Sea Floor Spread


The Earth's longest mountain chain isn't the Andes in South America, or the Himalayas in Asia, or even
North America's Rockies. It's an underwater chain of mountains 47,000 miles long. The chain runs down the
middle of the Atlantic Ocean (surfacing at Iceland), around Africa, through the Indian Ocean, between
Australia and Antarctica, and north through the Pacific Ocean.

Running along the top of this chain of mountains is a deep crack, called a rift valley. It is here that new
ocean floor is continuously created.

As the two sides of the mountain move away from each other, magma wells up from the Earth's interior. It
then solidifies into rock as it is cooled by the sea, creating new ocean floor.

The speed at which new ocean floor is created varies from one location on the ocean ridge to another.
Between North America.