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Donald L. Turcotte
Cornell University

I.Mantle Convection
III.Plate Tectonics
IV. Hotspots and Plumes
V. Continents
VI. Earthquakes
VII. Fractals, Chaos, and Self-Organized
VIII. Conclusions

GLOSSARY TECTONOPHYSICS is the branch of geophysics that

deals with the deformation of the solid earth. The solid
Elastic rebound Relative motion between plates causes earth is composed of the mantle and the crust. The crust
elastic deformation of the plates adjacent to a fault; is a thin surface layer (6–70 km thick) made up of rocks
when slip occurs on the fault, the plates rebound. derived from the mantle by partial melting. The earth is
Fractals Statistical distribution in which the number of a heat engine. Heat is produced within the earth due to
objects has a power-law dependence on their size. the decay of radioactive elements. The loss of this heat
Lithosphere Cool rigid outer shell of the earth that is to the surface drives solid-state thermal convection in the
capable of transmitting elastic stresses. earth’s mantle. The surface plates of plate tectonics are
Mantle convection The solid interior of the earth flows part of this convection system. New surface plates are cre-
like a fluid in response to gravitational buoyancy forces. ated at the global midocean ridge system (accretional plate
Plate tectonics The lithosphere of the earth is broken into margins). The plates move away from the ocean ridges at
a series of plates that are in relative motion with respect velocities of a few centimeters per year in a process known
to each other. as seafloor spreading. The plates behave rigidly because
Plume Quasi-cylindrical flows in the mantle responsible the rocks that make up the plates are cold and strong.
for hotspot volcanism. The plates are also known as the lithosphere and have a
Stick-slip Behavior of faults that causes earthquakes. typical thickness of 100 km. Since new plates are contin-
Subduction zone Region adjacent to an ocean trench uously being created, old plates must be destroyed. This
where the oceanic lithosphere bends and sinks into the occurs at ocean trenches (subduction zones) where the
interior of the earth. plates bend and sink into the earth’s interior. The relative

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500 Tectonophysics

motion between plates at plate boundaries results in vol- flow with a wavelength λ. Thermal gradients are restricted
canism, earthquakes, and mountain building. to the boundary layers and plumes; the isothermal cores
The earth’s surface is made up of ocean basins and have a temperature Tc halfway between T0 and T1 .
continents. The ocean basins participate in the plate tec- When the earth formed by accretion some 4.5 billion
tonic cycle but the continents do not. The continental crust years ago (4.5 Ga) it was hotter than it is today. The earth is
is thicker and less dense than the oceanic crust. Plates cooling at a rate of about 100 K/Ga. This may not seem like
with continental crust are gravitationally stable and can- a very large temperature change, but this secular cooling
not be subducted. However, continents ride along with results in a substantial heat loss to the surface. In addition,
the relative motions of the plates resulting in continental large amounts of heat are generated within the earth by
drift. At times, these motions result in continental col- the decay of the radioactive isotopes of uranium, thorium,
lisions, a major source of mountain building. Mountain and potassium. It is estimated that about one-half of the
ranges are extremely complex, with deformation occur- present heat loss from the interior of the earth is due to
ring on a wide range of scales involving both brittle and secular cooling, and one-half due to the decay of radioac-
fluid-like deformation. However, the statistical aspects of tive elements. Thus the solid mantle of the earth is heated
this deformation appear to obey simple fractal relation- from within and from below (due to heat loss from the
ships. Continental tectonics can certainly exhibit deter- core) and would be expected to convect if it were a fluid.
ministic, chaotic behavior and may involve examples of The acceptance that the solid interior of the earth be-
self-organized criticality. haves as a fluid due to solid-state creep was slow in
coming. Although a minority of earth scientists had long
advocated continental drift, general acceptance of mantle
I. MANTLE CONVECTION convection and large-scale surface displacements came
only in the early 1970s. The geometrical similarity be-
A fluid layer that is heated from below or within and cooled tween the east coasts of North, Central, and South America
from above is likely to convect. The near-surface fluid is and the west coasts of Europe and Africa was strik-
cooler and more dense than the fluid at depth; the surface ing. Arthur Holmes, one of the leading British geologists
fluid will tend to sink and the hotter, less dense fluid at during the first half of this century, advocated thermal con-
depth will rise. A simple example of a fluid layer heated vection in the mantle as the driving force for continental
from below is illustrated in Fig. 1; the temperature T0 of drift in 1931, but he was ridiculed by the leading geophysi-
the upper boundary is lower than the temperature T1 of the cists of the day. The primary objection was that solid rocks
lower boundary. Cooling from above creates a cold ther- could not possibly have a fluid behavior. Yet conclusive
mal boundary layer adjacent to the upper boundary that evidence that mantle rocks behaved as a fluid was available
is gravitationally unstable and forms a cold descending in the last half of the nineteenth century. Gravity surveys
plume. Similarly, a hot thermal boundary layer is created in India had shown that the Himalayas had roots. That the
adjacent to the lower boundary that is also gravitationally light crustal rocks that created the highest topography on
unstable and forms a hot ascending plume. The gravita- the planet floated like blocks of wood in water. How could
tional body forces in the plumes drive a cellular convective this occur if the mantle rocks did not have a fluid behavior?

FIGURE 1 Thermal boundary-layer structure of two-dimensional thermal convection in a fluid layer heated from
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Tectonophysics 501

Further evidence that the solid rocks of the mantle be- In determining the transition from brittle to ductile behav-
haved as a fluid came from studies of postglacial rebound. ior, pressure, temperature, and strain rate are important.
In Scandinavia, the thick glacial ice cover depressed the If the confining pressure of rock is of the order of the
area during the last ice age. The result was that, after the brittle strength of the rock, a transition from brittle to duc-
ice cover melted, the area rebounded and shorelines were tile behavior will occur. This transition typically occurs
elevated. In 1937 N. A. Haskell used this rate of eleva- at a depth of about 10 km. To model the ductile behavior
tion to quantify the fluid behavior of the solid mantle. of crustal and mantle rocks, it is often appropriate to use
Although his results were not generally recognized for an idealized elastic-perfectly plastic rheology. An elastic-
another 30 years, today his values are still accepted as perfectly plastic material exhibits a linear elastic behavior
being basically correct. But the question remained, Why until a yield stress is reached. The material can then be
should a solid exhibit a fluid-like behavior? In the 1950s, deformed plastically an unlimited amount at this stress.
laboratory studies showed that solids near their melting At temperatures that are a significant fraction of the
temperature behave as fluids. The flow of crystalline ice melt temperature the atoms and dislocations in a crys-
in glaciers is one example. It was recognized that the diffu- talline solid become sufficiently mobile to result in creep
sion of vacancies (vacant lattice sites) and the movement when the solid is subjected to deviatoric stresses. At very
of dislocations (crystal irregularities) in stress fields could low stresses diffusion processes dominate, and the crys-
lead to the very slow displacements associated with the talline solid behaves as a Newtonian fluid with a viscosity
flow of glaciers and the mantle. Today our concepts of that depends exponentially on the pressure and the inverse
solid-state creep, rebound of depressed areas, and mantle absolute temperature. At higher stresses the motion of dis-
convection are all completely consistent with each other. locations becomes the dominant creep process, resulting
Mantle convection carries heat upward through the inte- in a non-Newtonian or nonlinear fluid behavior that also
rior of the earth. The required velocities are a few centime- has an exponential pressure and inverse absolute tempera-
ters per year: an apparently low velocity but, on geologi- ture dependence. Mantle convection and continental drift
cal time scales, capable of drifting continents. Continental are attributed to these thermally activated creep processes
drift is a natural consequence of mantle convection. as discussed above.
The earth behaves like a heat engine. Thermal convec- Rocks can behave elastically on short time scales but as
tion converts heat into flows. These flows are responsible a fluid on long time scales. Such behavior can be modeled
for plate tectonics and, either directly or indirectly, vol- with a rheological law that combines linear elastic and vis-
canism, earthquakes, and mountain building. cous rheologies. A material that behaves both elastically
and viscously is known as a viscoelastic medium.
Folding is evidence that crustal rocks also exhibit duc-
II. RHEOLOGY tile behavior under stress. Pressure solution creep is a
mechanism that can account for the ductility of crustal
Rheology is the science of deformation. Rocks can exhibit rocks at relatively low temperatures and pressures. This
a wide range of rheologies including elastic, fracture, plas- process involves the dissolving of minerals in regions of
tic, and viscous. Tectonic consequences include faults and high pressure and their precipitation in regions of low pres-
folds as well as mantle convection. sure. As a result, creep of the rock occurs. Folding can also
At atmospheric pressure and room temperature most result from the plastic deformation of rock.
rocks are brittle; that is, they behave nearly elastically un-
til they fail by fracture. Cracks or fractures in rock along
which there has been little or no relative displacement are III. PLATE TECTONICS
known as joints. They occur on a wide range of scales in all
types of rocks. Joints are commonly found in sets defining Plate tectonics is a model in which the outer shell of the
parallel or intersecting patterns of failure related to local earth is broken into a number of thin rigid plates that
stress orientations. The breakdown of surface rocks by move with respect to one another. The relative velocities of
erosion and weathering is often controlled by systems of the plates are of the order of a few centimeters per year.
joints along which the rocks are particularly weak and sus- The basic hypothesis of plate tectonics was given by Jason
ceptible to disintegration and removal. These processes in Morgan in 1968. The concept of rigid plates with defor-
turn enhance the visibility of the jointing. Faults are frac- mations primarily concentrated near plate boundaries pro-
tures across which there has been a relative displacement. vides a comprehensive understanding of the global distri-
Although fracture is important in shallow crustal rocks bution of earthquakes, volcanism, and mountain building.
at low temperatures and pressures, there are many cir- The distribution of the major surface plates is given in
cumstances in which rocks behave as a ductile material. Fig. 2; the ridge axes, subduction zones, and transform
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502 Tectonophysics

FIGURE 2 Distribution of the major surface plates. The ridge axes, subduction zones, and transform faults that make
up the plate boundaries are shown.

faults that make up the plate boundaries are shown. The boundary layer associated with the loss of heat to the sur-
outer portion of the earth, termed the lithosphere, is made face of the earth. Because the viscosity of mantle rock is
up of relatively cool, stiff rocks and has an average thick- exponentially temperature dependent, the cold lithosphere
ness of about 100 km. The lithosphere is divided into a is essentially rigid and behaves as a series of nearly rigid
small number of mobile plates that are continuously be- plates. Ascending convection is associated with ocean
ing created and consumed at their edges. At ocean ridges, ridges. New seafloor is created at ocean ridges and the
adjacent plates move apart in a process known as seafloor seafloor spreads away from the ridge axis at a velocity u
spreading. As the adjacent plates diverge, hot mantle rock as illustrated in Fig. 3.
ascends to fill the gap. The hot, solid mantle rock behaves As the ocean lithosphere moves away from the ocean
like a fluid because of solid-state creep processes. As the ridge where it was created, it cools and becomes gravi-
hot mantle rock cools, it becomes rigid and accretes to tationally unstable with respect to the rock beneath. The
the plates, creating new plate area. For this reason ocean
ridges are also known as accretionary plate boundaries.
Because the surface area of the earth is essentially con-
stant, there must be a complementary process of plate
consumption. This occurs at ocean trenches. The surface
plates bend and descend into the interior of the earth in
a process known as subduction. At an ocean trench the
two adjacent plates converge, and one descends beneath
the other. For this reason ocean trenches are also known as
convergent plate boundaries. A cross-sectional view of the
creation and consumption of a typical plate is illustrated
in Fig. 3.
Plate tectonics is directly associated with mantle con- FIGURE 3 Accretion of a lithospheric plate at an ocean ridge
(accretional plate margin) and its subduction at an ocean trench
vection. The pattern of thermal convection illustrated in
(subduction zone). The asthenosphere, which lies beneath the
Fig. 1 can provide a direct understanding of why the earth lithosphere, and the volcanic line above the subducting lithosphere
has plate tectonics. The thermal boundary layer at the sur- are also shown. The plate migrates away from the ridge crest at
face of the earth is the lithosphere. This is the cold thermal the seafloor spreading velocity µ.
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Tectonophysics 503

oceanic lithosphere bends and sinks into the interior of the upward to fill the gap. The upwelling mantle rock cools
earth at an ocean trench as illustrated in Fig. 3. by conductive heat loss to the surface. The cooling rock
accretes to the base of the spreading plates, becoming
part of them; the structure of an accreting plate margin is
A. The Lithosphere
illustrated in Fig. 4.
An essential feature of plate tectonics is that only the outer As the plates move away from the ocean ridge, they
shell of the earth, the lithosphere, remains rigid during continue to cool and thicken. Seafloor depth as a func-
long intervals of geologic time. Because of their low tem- tion of age is shown in Fig. 5. As the lithosphere cools, it
peratures, rocks in the lithosphere resist deformation on contracts thermally and becomes denser; as a result, its up-
time scales of up to billion years. In contrast, the rock per surface—the ocean floor—sinks relative to the ocean
beneath the lithosphere is sufficiently hot that solid-state surface. The topographic elevation of the ocean ridge is
creep occurs. The lithosphere is composed of both mantle due to the lower-density, thinner, and hotter lithosphere
and crustal rocks. The oceanic lithosphere has an average near the axis of accretion at the ridge crest. A simple heat
thickness of 100 km, with the uppermost 6 to 7 km be- loss model (half-space cooling model) predicts that the
ing the oceanic crust. The oceanic lithosphere participates subsidence is proportional to the square root of age. This
in the plate tectonic cycle. The continental lithosphere has is a good approximation for young seafloor as shown in
a typical thickness of about 200 km. Typically, the up- Fig. 5 but overestimates the subsidence for seafloor older
per 30 km of the continental lithosphere is continental than about 100 Ma. This deviation can be attributed to the
crust. Because of the buoyancy of the continental crust, heating of the base of the oceanic lithosphere by mantle
the continental lithosphere does not subduct, although it plumes. This heating is approximated by assuming a plate
does participate in plate motions. model with a specified lithosphere thickness. The data ap-
The elastic rigidity of the lithosphere also allows it to pear to favor a maximum lithosphere (plate) thickness of
flex when subjected to a load. An example is the load 125 km as shown in Fig. 5. The elevation of the ridge
applied by a volcanic island. The load of the Hawaiian also exerts a gravitational body force that drives the litho-
Islands causes the lithosphere to bend downward around sphere away from the accretional boundary; it is one of
the load, resulting in a moat, a region of deeper wa- the important forces driving the plates and is known as
ter around the islands. The elastic bending of the litho- gravitational sliding or ridge push.
sphere under vertical loads can also explain the structure Ocean ridges generate a large fraction of the Earth’s
of ocean trenches and some sedimentary basins. However, volcanism. Because almost all the ridge system is below
the entire lithosphere is not effective in transmitting elas- sea level, only a small part of this volcanism can be readily
tic stresses. Only about the upper half of it is sufficiently observed. Ridge volcanism can be seen in Iceland, where
rigid that elastic stresses are not relaxed on time scales of
a billion years. This fraction of the lithosphere is referred
to as the elastic lithosphere. Solid-state creep processes
relax stresses in the lower, hotter part of the lithosphere.
This relaxation can be understood in terms of a viscoelas-
tic rheology. This lower part of the lithosphere, however,
remains a coherent part of the plates.
The strength of the lithosphere allows the plates to trans-
mit elastic stresses over geologic time intervals. The plates
act as stress guides. Stresses that are applied at the bound-
aries of a plate can be transmitted through the interior of
the plate. The ability of the plates to transmit stress over
large distances is a key factor in driving tectonic plates.
These stresses are also responsible for some intraplate
earthquakes and small amounts of intraplate deformation.
FIGURE 4 Structure of an accretional plate margin (x is the hor-
izontal coordinate and y the vertical coordinate). The rigid litho-
B. Accretional Plate Margins (Ocean Ridges) sphere, thickness yL , spreads away from the ridge axis at velocity
u0 . The solid contours are isotherms; the seafloor has a tempera-
Lithospheric plates are created at ocean ridges. The two
ture T0 and the mantle beneath the lithosphere has a temperature
plates on either side of an ocean ridge move away from T1 . Mantle material flows along the dashed lines to fill the gap
each other at nearly steady velocities of a few centimeters created by the spreading lithospheres. The depth of the subsiding
per year. As the two plates diverge, hot mantle rock flows seafloor relative to the ridge axis is w.
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504 Tectonophysics

FIGURE 6 Illustration of the subduction of the oceanic litho-

sphere at an ocean trench. The line of volcanic edifices associ-
ated with most subduction zones is shown. A substantial fraction
FIGURE 5 Seafloor depth as a function of age in the Atlantic, of the sediments that coat the basaltic oceanic crust is scraped off
Pacific, and Indian oceans. Comparisons are made with the half- during subduction to form an accretionary prism of sediments. In
space cooling model (HSCM) and with plate models with plate some cases, back-arc spreading forms a marginal basin behind
(lithosphere) thicknesses of 95 km (PM 95) and 125 km (PM 125). the subduction zone.

the oceanic crust is sufficiently thick that the ridge crest ted to the surface plate, which is pulled toward the ocean
rises above sea level. The volcanism at ocean ridges is trench. This is slab pull, one of the important forces driving
caused by pressure-release melting. The diverging plates plate tectonics.
induce an upwelling in the mantle. The temperature of the Ocean trenches are the sites of most of the largest earth-
ascending rock decreases slowly with decreasing pres- quakes. Earthquakes occur on the dipping fault plane that
sure. The solidus temperature for melting decreases with separates the descending lithosphere from the overlying
decreasing pressure at a much faster rate. When the tem- lithosphere. Earthquakes at ocean trenches can occur to
perature of the ascending mantle rock equals the solidus depths of 660 km. This seismogenic region, known as the
temperature, melting begins. The ascending mantle rock Wadati–Benioff zone, delineates the approximate struc-
contains a low-melting-point basaltic component; this ture of the descending plate.
component melts first to form the oceanic crust. The re- Volcanism is also associated with subduction. A line of
gion where partial melting is occurring is known as the regularly spaced volcanoes closely parallels the trend of
asthenosphere. almost all the ocean trenches. These volcanoes may re-
sult in an island arc or they may occur within continental
crust. The volcanoes generally lie above where the de-
C. Subduction
scending plate is 125 km deep, as illustrated in Fig. 6.
As the oceanic lithosphere moves away from an ocean It is far from obvious why volcanism is associated with
ridge, it cools, thickens, and becomes more dense because subduction. The descending lithosphere is cold compared
of thermal contraction. Even though the basaltic rocks of with the surrounding mantle, and thus it acts as a heat sink
the oceanic crust are lighter than the underlying mantle rather than as a heat source. The downward flow of the
rocks, the colder mantle rocks in the lithosphere become descending slab is expected to entrain flow in the overly-
sufficiently dense to make old oceanic lithosphere heavy ing mantle wedge. However, this flow will be primarily
enough to be gravitationally unstable with respect to the downward; thus, magma cannot be produced by pressure-
hot mantle rocks beneath the lithosphere. As a result of this release melting. One possible source of heat is frictional
gravitational instability the oceanic lithosphere founders heating on the fault plane between the descending litho-
and sinks into the interior of the earth, creating the ocean sphere and the overlying mantle.
trenches. This process is known as subduction and is il- When a subduction zone is adjacent to a continent,
lustrated schematically in Fig. 6. as in the case of South America, subduction zone vol-
The excess density of the rocks of the descending litho- canism can form great mountain belts, for example, the
sphere results in a downward buoyancy force. Because Andes. In some subduction zones tensional stresses can
the lithosphere behaves elastically, it can transmit stresses, result in back-arc, seafloor spreading and the formation of
i.e., it can act as a stress guide. A portion of the negative a marginal basin as illustrated in Fig. 6. An example is the
buoyancy force acting on the descending plate is transmit- Sea of Japan.
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Tectonophysics 505

IV. HOTSPOTS AND PLUMES elevation. The swell associated with the Hawaiian hotspot
is roughly parabolic in planform and it extends upstream
Not all volcanism and tectonism is restricted to the plate of the active hotspot some 500 km. The excess elevation
margins. Hotspots are anomalous areas of surface volcan- associated with the swell decays slowly down the track of
ism that cannot be directly associated with plate tectonic the hotspot. Hotspot swells are attributed to the buoyancy
processes. The term hotspot is used rather loosely. It is ap- of the hot, low-density plume rock impinging on the base
plied to any long-lived volcanic center that is not part of of the lithosphere.
the global network of midocean ridges and island arcs. Numerical and laboratory studies on the initial ascent
The prototype example is Hawaii. Anomalous regions of a low-viscosity buoyant plume through a high-viscosity
of thick crust on ocean ridges are also considered to be fluid have shown that the plume consists of a large leading
hotspots. Several hotspot lists have been published, and the diapir or plume head followed by a thin conduit connecting
number of volcanic centers included on these lists ranges the diapir with the source region. It has been proposed that
from about 20 to more than 100. Figure 7 shows the lo- massive flood basalt eruptions are the result of pressure-
cations of 38 prominent hotspots. In many cases hotspots release melting in the plume head as it impinges on the
have well-defined tracks associated with volcanic ridges lithosphere from below. According to this model, flood
or lines of volcanic edifices; these are also shown in Fig. 7. basalt eruptions mark the initiation of hotspot tracks as il-
In 1971, Jason Morgan attributed hotspot volcanism to lustrated in Fig. 7. Specifically the Deccan, Tertiary North
mantle plumes. Mantle plumes are quasi-cylindrical con- Atlantic, Parana, and Karoo flood basalts represent the
centrated upflows of hot mantle material; they represent onset of the currently active hotspots at Reunion, Iceland,
the ascending plumes from a basal thermal boundary layer Tristan de Cunha, and Prince Edward. In each case nearly
as illustrated in Fig. 1. Pressure-release melting in the hot 2 × 106 km3 of magma erupted within a few million years
ascending plume rock produces the basaltic volcanism that of hotspot initiation as the plume head reached the base
is forming the Hawaiian Island chain. The hypothesis of of the lithosphere.
fixed mantle plumes beneath overriding plates explains
the systematic age progression of the Hawaiian-Emperor
island-seamount chain, the hotspot track extending from V. CONTINENTS
Hawaii to the Aleutian Islands.
Most hotspots are also associated with topographic The basic facets of plate tectonics do not require conti-
swells. Hotspot swells are regional topographic highs with nents. But without continents little or no land would rise
widths of about 1000 km and up to 3 km of anomalous above sea level and life as we know it would not exist.

FIGURE 7 Locations of 38 prominent hotspots are shown. In some cases, the associated hotspot tracks and flood
basalt provinces are also shown.
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506 Tectonophysics

The continental crust is much thicker than the oceanic dense to be gravitationally unstable. Thus it is possible
crust (≈40 vs ≈6 km) and contains primarily silicic rocks for the lower part of the continental lithosphere, including
that are less dense than the basaltic rocks of the oceanic the lower continental crust, to delaminate and sink into
crust. The result is that the continental lithosphere is grav- the lower mantle. It is widely accepted that delamination
itationally stable and resists subduction. Because of the of the continental lithosphere is presently occurring be-
plate tectonic cycle, the seafloor has an average age of neath the Himalayas and the Alps. Delamination also plays
only about 100 Ma and the oldest seafloor has an age of an important role in the origin of the continental crust.
about 200 Ma. The mean age of the continents is greater The rocks of the continental crust cannot be formed
than 2 Ga and some parts have ages greater than 3 Ga. directly from magmas that rise from the mantle. A more
complex, three-step hypothesis is required. (1) Basaltic
volcanism from the mantle associated with subduction
A. Continental Drift
zone volcanics, continental rifts, and hotspots is respon-
The continents are rafted about on the plates, resulting in sible for the formation of the continental crust. (2) In-
continental drift. The earliest arguments for continental tracrustal melting and high-temperature metamorphism
drift were based largely on the fit of the continents. Ever are responsible for the differentiation of the crust so that
since the first reliable maps were available, the remark- the upper crust becomes more silicic and the lower crust
able fit between the east coast of South America and the becomes more basic. Basaltic magmas from the mantle
west coast of Africa has been noted. The fit was pointed intruded into a basaltic continental crust in the presence
out as early as 1620 by Francis Bacon. North America, of water can produce the granitic rocks associated with the
Greenland, and Europe also fit as illustrated in Fig. 8. De- continental crust. (3) Delamination of substantial quanti-
tailed arguments supporting continental drift were given ties of the continental lithosphere, including the mantle
by the well-known German meteorologist Alfred Wegener and lower crust, returns a substantial fraction of the more
in 1915. Wegener’s book included his highly original pic- basic lower crust to the mantle. The residuum, composed
ture of the breakup and subsequent drift of the continents primarily of the upper crust, thus becomes more silicic.
and his recognition of the supercontinent Pangea. Later
it was argued that there had formerly been a northern
C. The Wilson Cycle
continent, Laurasia, and a southern continent, Gondwana-
land, separated by the Tethys ocean. Wegener assembled J. Tuzo Wilson proposed in 1966 that continental drift
a formidable array of facts and conjectures to support his is cyclic. In particular, he proposed that oceans open and
case, including the match between mountain belts in South close; this is now known as the Wilson cycle and was based
America and Africa; similar rock types, rock ages, and on the opening and closing of the Atlantic Ocean. The
fossil species are found on the two sides of the Atlantic Wilson cycle, in its simplest form, is illustrated in Fig. 9.
Ocean. Tropical climates had existed in polar regions at The first step in the Wilson cycle is the breakup of a conti-
the same times that arctic climates had existed in equa- nent. This occurs on continental rift zones. Present exam-
torial regions. Also, the evolution and dispersion of plant ples are the East African Rift system and the Rio Grande
and animal species were best explained in terms of ancient graben. These may or may not break apart to form future
land bridges, suggesting direct connections between now oceans. Aulacogens (triple junctions with three rifts con-
widely separated continents. nected at about 120◦ ) are believed to play a key role in the
Although the qualitative arguments favoring continen- initiation of rifting and the breakup of continents. Aulaco-
tal drift appear convincing today, they were summarily gens are the surface expressions of the impingement of
rejected by the vast majority of earth scientists during the mantle plumes on the base of the continental lithosphere
first half of the 20th century. Only with the acceptance of and are associated with lithospheric swells. An example of
mantle convection and plate tectonics did continental drift a lithospheric swell on a continent is the Ethiopian swell on
receive general acceptance. the East African Rift. An example of a triple junction is at
the southern end of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the
East African Rift. When a continent opens, two of the rifts
B. Delamination and the Origin
separate and become part of an ocean. The third rift aborts
of the Continental Crust
and is known as a “failed” arm. Examples of failed arms
There is no evidence that the continental lithosphere is associated with the opening of the Atlantic Ocean are the
subducted. This is attributed to the buoyancy of the con- St. Lawrence River Valley Rift and the Niger Rift in Africa.
tinental crust, which results in the continental lithosphere The second step in the Wilson cycle is the opening of
being gravitationally stable. However, the mantle por- the ocean as illustrated in Fig. 9b. The rift valley splits
tion of the continental lithosphere is sufficiently cold and apart and oceanic crust is formed at an accretional plate
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Tectonophysics 507

FIGURE 8 The remarkable “fit” between the continental margins of North and South America and Greenland, Europe,
and Africa is illustrated. This fit was one of the primary early arguments for continental drift.
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508 Tectonophysics

and Asia. This collision occurred about 45 Ma and has

been continuing since. The initial collision resulted in
a major global reorganization of plate motions that is
best documented by the bend in the Hawaiian-Emperor
seamount chain shown in Fig. 7.


One of the important phenomena associated with active

tectonics is earthquakes. A large fraction of the displace-
ments that occur in the upper crust is associated with earth-
quakes. The understanding of the stick-slip behavior of
faults evolved from studies of the 1906 earthquake on the
San Andreas fault in northern California. This earthquake
and the subsequent fire destroyed much of San Francisco
(Fig. 10). Studies of the geodetic displacements associ-
ated with this earthquake led H. F. Reid to propose the
hypothesis of elastic rebound in 1910. This hypothesis is
FIGURE 9 Illustration of the Wilson cycle. (a) Initiation of new
ocean at a continental rift zone. (b) Opening of the ocean (am, totally consistent with plate tectonics, although the latter
accretional margin). (c) Initiation of subduction (sz, subduction evolved 60 years later. Displacements on the San Andreas
zone; vl, volcanic line). (d) Ridge subduction. (e) Continental col- fault accommodate the relative motion between the Pacific
lision (suz, suture zone). and the North American plates.
Elastic rebound and stick-slip behavior are illustrated
boundary. The Red Sea is an example of the initial stages of in Fig. 11. Faults lock, and a displacement occurs when
the opening of an ocean, while the Atlantic Ocean is an ex- the stress across the fault builds up to a sufficient level
ample of a mature stage. The margins of an opening ocean to cause rupture of the fault. This is known as stick-slip
are known as passive continental margins, in contrast to behavior. When a fault sticks, elastic energy accumulates
active continental margins, where subduction is occurring. in the rocks around the fault because of displacements at
The third step in the Wilson cycle is the initiation of sub- a distance. When the stress on the fault reaches a critical
duction (Fig. 9c). A passive continental margin is a favored value, the fault slips and an earthquake occurs. The elastic
site for the initiation of subduction because it is already a energy stored in the adjacent rock is partially dissipated as
zone of weakness established during rifting. The differen- heat by friction on the fault and is partially radiated away
tial subsidence between aging seafloor and the continen- in seismic waves. The surface displacements caused by
tal lithosphere provides a source of stress. The fourth step these waves are responsible for the extensive destruction
in the Wilson cycle, illustrated in Fig. 9d, is ridge sub- that occurs during major earthquakes. The release of the
duction. If the velocity of subduction is higher than the stored elastic energy during an earthquake is known as
velocity of seafloor spreading, the ocean will close and elastic rebound. Fault displacements associated with the
eventually the accretional plate margin will be subducted. largest earthquakes are of the order of 30 m. About 4 m
Ridge subduction played an important role in the recent of displacement occurred during the 1906 earthquake in
geological evolution of the western United States and in northern California.
the development of the San Andreas fault system. Great earthquakes are generally associated with the
The fifth and final stage in the Wilson cycle, illustrated boundaries between the surface plates. They occur reg-
in Fig. 9e, is the continental collision that occurs when ularly where plates slide past each other (e.g., the San
the ocean closes. This terminates the Wilson cycle. Con- Andreas fault) and in subduction zones (e.g., the 1960
tinental collision is one of the primary mechanisms for earthquake in Chile and the 1964 earthquake in Alaska).
the creation of mountains in the continents; the other is However, some plate boundaries are rather diffuse and
subduction. The Himalayas and the Alps are examples of earthquakes can occur over broad regions. This is the
mountain belts caused by continental collisions, and the case in the western United States, where deformation and
Andes is a mountain belt associated with subduction. The mountain building occur from the Rocky Mountains to the
boundary between the two plates within the collision zone Pacific Coast. It is also true in China, where a broad zone of
is known as a suture zone. The Himalayas are the result of deformation extends through the entire country, resulting
the continental collision between the Indian subcontinent in many disastrous earthquakes including the T’angshan
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Tectonophysics 509

FIGURE 10 Destruction in San Francisco caused by the magnitude 8.3 earthquake, April 18, 1906, and the subse-
quent fire. It is estimated that there was 3000 deaths and about 28,000 buildings were destroyed.

earthquake in 1976, which killed some 500,000 people. that an object that defines the scale, i.e., a coin, a rock
Broad zones of deformation are required by the evolving hammer, or a person, must be included whenever a photo-
motion of the plates; in some cases new boundaries evolve graph of a geological feature is taken. Without the scale, it
to accommodate the required relative velocities. Earth- is often impossible to determine whether the photograph
quakes can also occur in the interior of apparently rigid covers 10 cm or 10 km. For example, self-similar folds
plates. An example is the series of three large earthquakes occur over this range of scales. Another example is be an
that occurred near New Madrid, Missouri, in 1811–1812. aerial photograph of a rocky coastline. Without an object
These intraplate earthquakes are attributed to the large with a characteristic dimension, such as a tree or house,
stresses that are transmitted through the interior of plates; the elevation of the photograph cannot be determined. It
they generally do not result in the development of signifi- was in this context that Benoit Mandelbrot introduced the
cant mountain belts. concept of fractals in 1967. The definition of a fractal
distribution is

Ni = C/riD , (1)
SELF-ORGANIZED CRITICALITY where Ni is the number of objects with a linear size ri , C
is a constant, and D is the fractal dimension. Mandelbrot
The scale invariance of geological phenomena is one of the showed that the perimeter Pi of a rocky coastline (e.g.,
concepts taught to a student of geology. It is pointed out Maine) or a contour on a topographic map satisfies Eq. (1)
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510 Tectonophysics

50 years that, almost universally, b = 0.9. It is now ac-

cepted that the Gutenberg–Richter relationship is equiva-
lent to a fractal relationship between the number of earth-
quakes and the characteristic size of the rupture; the value
of the fractal dimension D is simply twice the b-value;
typically D = 1.8 for distributed seismicity.
An example for earthquakes in southern California
is given in Fig. 12. The fact that the distribution of
earthquakes is a fractal is evidence that the distribution
of faults on which the earthquakes are occurring is also a
fractal. Crustal deformation is occurring on all scales in a
scale-invariant manner. Although the deformation is com-
plex and chaotic, the deformation satisfies scale-invariant
fractal statistics.
Fractal concepts can also be applied to continuous dis-
tributions; an example is topography. Mandelbrot has used
fractal concepts to generate synthetic landscapes that look
remarkably similar to actual landscapes. The fractal di-
mension is a measure of the roughness of the features.
The earth’s topography is a composite of many competing
influences. Topography is created by tectonic processes in-
cluding faulting, folding, and flexure. It is modified and
destroyed by erosion and sedimentation. There is con-
FIGURE 11 Illustration of the stick-slip and elastic-rebound be- siderable empirical evidence that erosion is scale invari-
havior of faults. (a) After an earthquake the fault sticks and the rel- ant and fractal; a river network is a classic example of a
ative plate velocity u0 causes an elastic deformation of the plates. fractal tree. Topography often appears to be complex and
(b) As elastic distortion occurs the stress builds up in the plates chaotic, yet there is order in the complexity. A standard
until the fault slips. (c) Slip on the fault results in elastic rebound,
the fault sticks, and the process repeats.
approach to the analysis of a continuous function such as
topography along a linear track is to determine the coeffi-
cients An in a Fourier series as a function of the wavelength
if ri is the length of the step used in measuring the perime- λn . If the amplitudes An have a power-law dependence on
ter and Ni the number of steps: the wavelength λn , a fractal distribution may result. For
topography and bathymetry it is found that, to a good ap-
Pi = Ni ri = C /riD−1 . (2)
proximation, the Fourier amplitudes are proportional to
The shorter the step, the longer the perimeter; D is usu-
ally about 1.25. Because of scale invariance, the length of
the coastline increases as the length of the measuring rod
decreases according to a power law; the power determines
the fractal dimension of the coastline. It is not possible to
obtain a specific value for the length of a coastline, owing
to all the small indentations, down to a scale of millimeters
or less.
Many geological phenomena are scale invariant. Ex-
amples include the frequency-size distributions of rock
fragments, faults, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and oil
fields. The empirical applicability of power-law statistics
to geological phenomena was recognized long before the
concept of fractals was conceived. A striking example
is the Gutenberg–Richter relation for the frequency-
magnitude statistics of earthquakes. The proportional-
FIGURE 12 Number of earthquakes that occurred in southern
ity factor in the relationship between the logarithm of California with a magnitude greater than a specified value from
the number of earthquakes and earthquake magnitude is 1985 to 1999. Between a magnitude of 1 and a magnitude of 6,
known as the b-value. It has been recognized for nearly the data correlate with b = 0.98 and D = 1.96.
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Tectonophysics 511

the wavelengths. This is also true for a Brownian walk, two-dimensional array of slider blocks is considered. Each
which can be generated as follows. Take a step forward block is attached to its four neighbors and to a constant-
and flip a coin; if tails occurs, take a step to the right, and if velocity driver plate by springs. Slip events occur chaot-
heads occurs, take a step to the left; repeat the process. The ically and the frequency–size statistics of the events are
divergence of the walk or signal increases in proportion to generally fractal. By increasing the number of blocks con-
the square root of the number of steps. A spectral analysis sidered, the low-order chaotic system is transformed into a
of the random walk shows that the Fourier coefficients An high-order system that exhibits self-organized criticality.
are proportional to the wavelengths λn .
Although fractal distributions would be useful simply as
a means of quantifying scale-invariant distributions, their VIII. CONCLUSIONS
applicability to geological problems has a more funda-
mental basis. Ed Lorenz, in 1963, derived a set of nonlin- Mantle convection and plate tectonics provide a general
ear differential equations that approximate thermal con- framework for understanding tectonophysics. Transport
vection in a fluid. This set of equations was the first to of heat from the interior of the earth drives solid-state
be shown to exhibit chaotic behavior. Infinitesimal vari- convection. Plate tectonics is a direct consequence of this
ations in initial conditions led to first-order differences convection. The relative velocity between plates causes
in the solutions obtained. This is the definition of chaos. crustal deformation at the boundaries between plates. In
The equations are completely deterministic; however, be- some cases this deformation is diffuse and is spread over
cause of the exponential sensitivity to initial conditions, a broad area. Volcanism occurs at most plate boundaries
the evolution of a chaotic solution is not predictable. The and is also responsible for crustal deformation.
evolution of the solution must be treated statistically and Although we now have a general understanding of
the applicable statistics are often fractal. Mantle convec- tectonophysics, we are still not able to predict earthquakes.
tion is one example of a chaotic process in nature. Deformation on a local scale is extremely complex. In
Slider-block models have long been recognized as a fact, it is quite likely that local deformation is so com-
simple analogue for the behavior of a fault. The block is plex and chaotic that it is fundamentally impossible to
dragged along a surface with a spring and the friction be- make predictions of earthquakes. Only risk assessments
tween the surface and the block results in the stick-slip will be possible. There is increasing evidence that scale-
behavior that is characteristic of faults. It has been shown invariant, fractal statistics are applicable to a variety of
that a pair of slider blocks exhibits chaotic behavior. The tectonophysics problems. One possible application is the
two slider blocks are attached to each other by a spring, direct association of large earthquakes with small earth-
and each is attached to a constant-velocity driver plate by quakes; a risk of a great earthquake is present only where
another spring. As long as there is any asymmetry in the small earthquakes are occurring and the level of local seis-
problem, for example, unequal block masses, chaotic be- micity can be used to assess the seismic hazard.
havior can result. This is evidence that the deformation of
the crust associated with displacements on faults is chaotic
and, thus, is a statistical process. This is entirely consis- SEE ALSO THE FOLLOWING ARTICLES
tent with the observation that earthquakes obey fractal
The concept of self-organized criticality was introduced NISMS AND PLATE TECTONICS • EARTH’S MANTLE (GEO-
by Per Bak and colleagues in 1988 in terms of a cellular PHYSICS) • GEOLOGY, EARTHQUAKE • FRACTALS • PLATE
automaton model for avalanches on a sand pile. A natural TECTONICS • VOLCANOLOGY
system is said to be in a state of self-organized criticality
if, when perturbed from this state, it evolves naturally back
to the state of marginal stability. The input to the system BIBLIOGRAPHY
is slow and steady and the output is in avalanches which
satisfy fractal frequency-size statistics. Earthquakes are an Fowler, C. M. R. (1990). “The Solid Earth,” Cambridge University Press,
example of such a system. The slow tectonic motion of the Cambridge.
plates is the input and the earthquakes are the avalanches Press, F., and Siever, R. (1997). “Understanding Earth,” W. H. Freeman,
which satisfy fractal statistics as shown in Fig. 12. San Francisco.
Turcotte, D. L. (1997). “Fractals and Chaos in Geology and Geophysics,”
As discussed above, a pair of interacting slider blocks Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
can exhibit chaotic behavior. Large numbers of driven Turcotte, D. L., and Schubert, G. (1982). “Geodynamics,” Wiley, New
slider blocks are an example of self-organized criticality. A York.