Plate tectonics (from the Late Latin tectonicus, from the Greek: τεκτονικός "pertaining to building") is a scientific theory which describes the large scale motions of Earth's lithosphere. It is vital for the existence of life on earth because of the role that it plays in the global cycle that maintains the balance of carbon between the biosphere, pedosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. The theory builds on the older concepts of continental drift, developed during the first decades of the 20th century by Alfred Wegener, and seafloor spreading, developed in the 1960s.
The lithosphere is broken up into what are called tectonic plates. In the case of Earth, there are currently seven to eight major (depending on how they are defined) and many minor plates (see list below). The lithospheric plates ride on the asthenosphere. These plates move in relation to one another at one of three types of plate boundaries: convergent, or collisional boundaries; divergent boundaries, also called spreading centers; and transform boundaries. Earthquakes, volcanic activity, mountain-building, and oceanic trench formation occur along plate boundaries. The lateral movement of the plates is typically 50–100 mm annually.
Tectonic plates are able to move because the Earth's lithosphere has a higher strength and lower density than the underlying asthenosphere. Their movement is driven by heat dissipation from the mantle. Lateral density variations in the mantle result in convection, which is transferred into tectonic plate motion through some combination of drag, downward suction at the subduction zones, and variations in topography and density of the crust that result in differences in gravitational forces. The relative importance of each of these factors is unclear.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, geologists assumed that the Earth's major features were fixed, and that most geologic features such as mountain ranges could be explained by vertical crustal movement, through geosynclinal theory. It was observed as early as 1596 that the opposite coasts of the Atlantic Ocean—or, more precisely, the edges of the continental shelves—have similar shapes and seem to have once fitted together. Since that time many theories were proposed to explain this apparent complementarity, but the assumption of a solid earth made the various proposals difficult to explain.
The discovery of radioactivity and its associated heating properties in 1895 prompted a re-examination of the apparent age of the Earth, since this had previously been estimated by its cooling rate and assumption the Earth's surface radiated like a black body. Those calculations had implied that, even if it started at red heat, the Earth would have dropped to its present temperature in a few tens of millions of years. Armed with the knowledge of a new heat source, scientists realized that the Earth would be much older, and that its core was still sufficiently hot to be liquid.
Plate tectonic theory arose out of the hypothesis of continental drift proposed by Alfred Wegener in 1912 and expanded in his 1915 book The Origin of Continents and Oceans. He suggested that the present continents once formed a single land mass that drifted apart, thus releasing the continents from the Earth's core and likening them to "icebergs" of low density granite floating on a sea of denser basalt. But without detailed evidence and a force sufficient to drive the movement, the theory was not generally accepted: the Earth might have a solid crust and a liquid core, but there seemed to be no way that portions of the crust could move around. Later science supported theories proposed by English geologist Arthur Holmes in 1920 that plate junctions might lie beneath the sea and Holmes' 1928 suggestion of convection currents within the mantle as the driving force.
The first evidence that the lithospheric plates did move came with the discovery of variable magnetic field direction in rocks of differing ages, first revealed at a symposium in Tasmania in 1956. Initially theorized as an expansion of the global crust, later collaborations developed the plate tectonic theory, which accounted for spreading as the consequence of new rock upwelling, but avoided the need for an expanding globe by recognizing subduction zones and conservative translation faults. It was at this point that Wegener's theory became generally accepted by the scientific community. Additional work on the association of seafloor spreading and magnetic field reversals by Harry Hess and Ron G. Mason pinpointed the precise mechanism which accounted for new rock upwelling.
Following the recognition of magnetic anomalies defined by symmetric, parallel stripes of similar magnetization on the seafloor on either side of a mid-ocean ridge, plate tectonics quickly became broadly accepted. Simultaneous advances in early seismic imaging techniques in and around Wadati-Benioff zones together with many other geologic observations soon made plate tectonics a theory with extraordinary explanatory and predictive power.
Study of the deep ocean floor was critical to development of the theory; the field of deep sea marine geology accelerated in the 1960s. Correspondingly, plate tectonic theory was developed during the late 1960s and has since been accepted by almost all scientists throughout all geoscientific disciplines. The theory revolutionized the Earth sciences, explaining a diverse range of geological phenomena and their implications in other studies such as paleogeography and paleobiology.
The outer layers of the Earth are divided into lithosphere and asthenosphere. This is based on differences in mechanical properties and in the method for the transfer of heat. Mechanically, the lithosphere is cooler and more rigid, while the asthenosphere is hotter and flows more easily. In terms of heat transfer, the lithosphere loses heat by conduction whereas the asthenosphere also transfers heat by convection and has a nearly adiabatic temperature gradient. This division should not be confused with the chemical subdivision of these same layers into the mantle (comprising both the asthenosphere and the mantle portion of the lithosphere) and the crust: a given piece of mantle may be part of the lithosphere or the asthenosphere at different times, depending on its temperature and pressure.
The key principle of plate tectonics is that the lithosphere exists as separate and distinct tectonic plates, which ride on the fluid-like (visco-elastic solid) asthenosphere. Plate motions range up to a typical 10–40 mm/a (Mid-Atlantic Ridge; about as fast as fingernails grow), to about 160 mm/a (Nazca Plate; about as fast as hair grows).
Tectonic plates consist of lithospheric mantle overlain by either of two types of crustal material: oceanic crust (in older texts called sima from silicon and magnesium) and continental crust (sial from silicon and aluminium). Average oceanic lithosphere is typically 100 km thick; its thickness is a function of its age: as time passes, it conductively cools and becomes thicker. Because it is formed at mid-ocean ridges and spreads outwards, its thickness is therefore a function of its distance from the mid-ocean ridge where it was formed. For a typical distance oceanic lithosphere must travel before being subducted, the thickness varies ~6 km thick at mid-ocean ridges to greater than 100 km at subduction zones; for shorter or longer distances, the subduction zone (and therefore also the mean) thickness becomes smaller or larger, respectively. Typical continental lithosphere is typically ~200 km thick, though this also varies considerably between basins, mountain ranges, and stable cratonic interiors of continents. The two types of crust also differ in thickness, with continental crust being considerably thicker than oceanic (35 km vs. 6 km)
The location where two plates meet is called a plate boundary, and plate boundaries are commonly associated with geological events such as earthquakes and the creation of topographic features such as mountains, volcanoes, mid-ocean ridges, and oceanic trenches. The majority of the world's active volcanoes occur along plate boundaries, with the Pacific Plate's Ring of Fire being most active and most widely known. These boundaries are discussed in further detail below.
Tectonic plates can include continental crust or oceanic crust, and many plates contain both. For example, the African Plate includes the continent and parts of the floor of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The distinction between oceanic crust and continental crust is based on their modes of formation. Oceanic crust is formed at sea-floor spreading centers, and continental crust is formed through arc volcanism and accretion of terranes through tectonic processes; though some of these terranes may contain ophiolite sequences, which are pieces of oceanic crust, these are considered part of the continent when they exit the standard cycle of formation and spreading centers and subduction beneath continents. Oceanic crust is also denser than continental crust owing to their different compositions. Oceanic crust is denser because it has less silicon and more heavier elements ("mafic") than continental crust ("felsic"). As a result of this density stratification, oceanic crust generally lies below sea level (for example most of the Pacific Plate), while the continental crust buoyantly projects above sea level (see isostasy for explanation of this principle).
Three types of plate boundaries exist, characterized by the way the plates move relative to each other. They are associated with different types of surface phenomena. The different types of plate boundaries are:
Tectonic plates are able to move because of the relative density of oceanic lithosphere and the relative weakness of the asthenosphere. Dissipation of heat from the mantle is acknowledged to be the original source of energy driving plate tectonics. The current view, although it is still a matter of some debate, is that excess density of the oceanic lithosphere sinking in subduction zones is the most powerful source of plate motion. When it forms at mid-ocean ridges, the oceanic lithosphere is initially less dense than the underlying asthenosphere, but it becomes denser with age, as it conductively cools and thickens. The greater density of old lithosphere relative to the underlying asthenosphere allows it to sink into the deep mantle at subduction zones, providing most of the driving force for plate motions. The weakness of the asthenosphere allows the tectonic plates to move easily towards a subduction zone. Although subduction is believed to be the strongest force driving plate motions, it cannot be the only force since there are plates such as the North American Plate which are moving, yet are nowhere being subducted. The same is true for the enormous Eurasian Plate. The sources of plate motion are a matter of intensive research and discussion among earth scientists.
Two- and three-dimensional imaging of the Earth's interior (seismic tomography) shows that there is a laterally varying density distribution throughout the mantle. Such density variations can be material (from rock chemistry), mineral (from variations in mineral structures), or thermal (through thermal expansion and contraction from heat energy). The manifestation of this varying lateral density is mantle convection from buoyancy forces. How mantle convection relates directly and indirectly to the motion of the plates is a matter of ongoing study and discussion in geodynamics. Somehow, this energy must be transferred to the lithosphere in order for tectonic plates to move. There are essentially two types of forces that are thought to influence plate motion: friction and gravity.
In a study published in the January-February 2006 issue of the Geological Society of America Bulletin, a team of Italian and U.S. scientists argued that the westward component of every plate's motion is due to Earth's rotation and the tidal friction of the moon. As the Earth spins eastward beneath the moon, they say, the moon's gravity ever so slightly pulls the Earth's surface layer back westward. It has also been suggested (albeit, controversially) that this observation may also explain why Venus and Mars have no plate tectonics since Venus has no moon, and Mars' moons are too small to have significant tidal effects on Mars. This is not, however, a new argument.
It was originally raised by the "father" of the plate tectonics hypothesis, Alfred Wegener. It was challenged by the physicist Harold Jeffreys who calculated that the magnitude of tidal friction required would have quickly brought the Earth's rotation to a halt long ago. Many plates are moving north and eastward, and the dominantly westward motion of the Pacific ocean basins is simply from the eastward bias of the Pacific spreading center (which is not a predicted manifestation of such lunar forces). It is argued, however, that relative to the lower mantle, there is a slight westward component in the motions of all the plates.
The actual vector of a plate's motion must necessarily be a function of all the forces acting upon the plate. However, therein remains the problem regarding what degree each process contributes to the motion of each tectonic plate.
The diversity of geodynamic settings and properties of each plate must clearly result in differences in the degree to which such processes are actively driving the plates. One method of dealing with this problem is to consider the relative rate at which each plate is moving and to consider the available evidence of each driving force upon the plate as far as possible.
One of the most significant correlations found is that lithospheric plates attached to downgoing (subducting) plates move much faster than plates not attached to subducting plates. The Pacific plate, for instance, is essentially surrounded by zones of subduction (the so-called Ring of Fire) and moves much faster than the plates of the Atlantic basin, which are attached (perhaps one could say 'welded') to adjacent continents instead of subducting plates. It is thus thought that forces associated with the downgoing plate (slab pull and slab suction) are the driving forces which determine the motion of plates, except for those plates which are not being subducted .
The driving forces of plate motion are, nevertheless, still very active subjects of on-going discussion and research in the geophysical community.
Depending on how they are defined, there are usually seven or eight "major" plates:
There are dozens of smaller plates, the seven largest of which are:
The movement of plates has caused the formation and break-up of continents over time, including occasional formation of a supercontinent that contains most or all of the continents. The supercontinent Rodinia is thought to have formed about 1 billion years ago and to have embodied most or all of Earth's continents, and broken up into eight continents around 600 million years ago. The eight continents later re-assembled into another supercontinent called Pangaea; Pangaea broke up into Laurasia (which became North America and Eurasia) and Gondwana (which became the remaining continents).
Continental drift was one of many ideas about tectonics proposed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The theory has been superseded and the concepts and data have been incorporated within plate tectonics.
By 1915, Alfred Wegener was making serious arguments for the idea in the first edition of The Origin of Continents and Oceans. In that book, he noted how the east coast of South America and the west coast of Africa looked as if they were once attached. Wegener wasn't the first to note this (Abraham Ortelius, Francis Bacon, Benjamin Franklin, Snider-Pellegrini, Roberto Mantovani and Frank Bursley Taylor preceded him), but he was the first to marshal significant fossil and paleo-topographical and climatological evidence to support this simple observation (and was supported in this by researchers such as Alex du Toit). However, his ideas were not taken seriously by many geologists, who pointed out that there was no apparent mechanism for continental drift. Specifically, they did not see how continental rock could plow through the much denser rock that makes up oceanic crust. Wegener could not explain the force that drove continental drift.
Wegener's vindication did not come until after his death in 1930. In 1947, a team of scientists led by Maurice Ewing utilizing the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s research vessel Atlantis and an array of instruments, confirmed the existence of a rise in the central Atlantic Ocean, and found that the floor of the seabed beneath the layer of sediments consisted of basalt, not the granite which is the main constituent of continents. They also found that the oceanic crust was much thinner than continental crust. All these new findings raised important and intriguing questions.
Beginning in the 1950s, scientists including Harry Hess and Victor Vacquier, using magnetic instruments (magnetometers) adapted from airborne devices developed during World War II to detect submarines, began recognizing odd magnetic variations across the ocean floor. This finding, though unexpected, was not entirely surprising because it was known that basalt—the iron-rich, volcanic rock making up the ocean floor—contains a strongly magnetic mineral (magnetite) and can locally distort compass readings. This distortion was recognized by Icelandic mariners as early as the late 18th century. More important, because the presence of magnetite gives the basalt measurable magnetic properties, these newly discovered magnetic variations provided another means to study the deep ocean floor. When newly formed rock cools, such magnetic materials recorded the Earth's magnetic field at the time.
As more and more of the seafloor was mapped during the 1950s, the magnetic variations turned out not to be random or isolated occurrences, but instead revealed recognizable patterns. When these magnetic patterns were mapped over a wide region, the ocean floor showed a zebra-like pattern. Alternating stripes of magnetically different rock were laid out in rows on either side of the mid-ocean ridge: one stripe with normal polarity and the adjoining stripe with reversed polarity. The overall pattern, defined by these alternating bands of normally and reversely polarized rock, became known as magnetic striping.
When the rock strata of the tips of separate continents are very similar it suggests that these rocks were formed in the same way, implying that they were joined initially. For instance, some parts of Scotland and Ireland contain rocks very similar to those found in Newfoundland and New Brunswick. Furthermore, the Caledonian Mountains of Europe and parts of the Appalachian Mountains of North America are very similar in structure and lithology.
The prevailing concept was that there were static shells of strata under the continents. It was observed early that although granite existed on continents, seafloor seemed to be composed of denser basalt. It was apparent that a layer of basalt underlies continental rocks.
However, based upon abnormalities in plumb line deflection by the Andes in Peru, Pierre Bouguer deduced that less-dense mountains must have a downward projection into the denser layer underneath. The concept that mountains had "roots" was confirmed by George B. Airy a hundred years later during study of Himalayan gravitation, and seismic studies detected corresponding density variations.
By the mid-1950s the question remained unresolved of whether mountain roots were clenched in surrounding basalt or were floating like an iceberg.
Significant progress was made in the 1960s, and was prompted by a number of discoveries, most notably of the Mid-Atlantic ridge. The most significant paper was the 1962 publication by American geologist Harry Hammond Hess (Robert S. Dietz published the same idea one year earlier in Nature. However, priority belongs to Hess, since he had already distributed an unpublished manuscript of his 1962 article by 1960). Hess suggested that instead of continents moving through oceanic crust (as was suggested by continental drift) that an ocean basin and its adjoining continent moved together on the same crustal unit, or plate. In the same year, Robert R. Coats of the U.S. Geological Survey described the main features of island arc subduction in the Aleutian Islands. His paper, though little-noted (and even ridiculed) at the time, has since been called "seminal" and "prescient". In 1967, W. Jason Morgan proposed that the Earth's surface consists of 12 rigid plates that move relative to each other. Two months later, in 1968, Xavier Le Pichon published a complete model based on 6 major plates with their relative motions.
The discovery of magnetic striping and the stripes being symmetrical around the crests of the mid-ocean ridges suggested a relationship. In 1961, scientists began to theorise that mid-ocean ridges mark structurally weak zones where the ocean floor was being ripped in two lengthwise along the ridge crest. New magma from deep within the Earth rises easily through these weak zones and eventually erupts along the crest of the ridges to create new oceanic crust. This process, later called seafloor spreading, operating over many millions of years continues to form new ocean floor all across the 50,000 km-long system of mid-ocean ridges. This hypothesis was supported by several lines of evidence:
By explaining both the zebralike magnetic striping and the construction of the mid-ocean ridge system, the seafloor spreading hypothesis quickly gained converts and represented another major advance in the development of the plate-tectonics theory. Furthermore, the oceanic crust now came to be appreciated as a natural "tape recording" of the history of the reversals in the Earth's magnetic field.
A profound consequence of seafloor spreading is that new crust was, and is now, being continually created along the oceanic ridges. This idea found great favor with some scientists, most notably S. Warren Carey, who claimed that the shifting of the continents can be simply explained by a large increase in size of the Earth since its formation. However, this so-called "Expanding Earth" hypothesis was unsatisfactory because its supporters could offer no convincing mechanism to produce a significant expansion of the Earth. Certainly there is no evidence that the moon has expanded in the past 3 billion years. Still, the question remained: how can new crust be continuously added along the oceanic ridges without increasing the size of the Earth?
This question particularly intrigued Harry Hess, a Princeton University geologist and a Naval Reserve Rear Admiral, and Robert S. Dietz, a scientist with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey who first coined the term seafloor spreading. Dietz and Hess were among the small handful who really understood the broad implications of sea floor spreading. If the Earth's crust was expanding along the oceanic ridges, Hess reasoned, it must be shrinking elsewhere. He suggested that new oceanic crust continuously spreads away from the ridges in a conveyor belt-like motion. Many millions of years later, the oceanic crust eventually descends into the oceanic trenches — very deep, narrow canyons along the rim of the Pacific Ocean basin. According to Hess, the Atlantic Ocean was expanding while the Pacific Ocean was shrinking. As old oceanic crust is consumed in the trenches, new magma rises and erupts along the spreading ridges to form new crust. In effect, the ocean basins are perpetually being "recycled," with the creation of new crust and the destruction of old oceanic lithosphere occurring simultaneously. Thus, Hess' ideas neatly explained why the Earth does not get bigger with sea floor spreading, why there is so little sediment accumulation on the ocean floor, and why oceanic rocks are much younger than continental rocks.
During the 20th century, improvements in and greater use of seismic instruments such as seismographs enabled scientists to learn that earthquakes tend to be concentrated in specific areas, most notably along the oceanic trenches and spreading ridges. By the late 1920s, seismologists were beginning to identify several prominent earthquake zones parallel to the trenches that typically were inclined 40–60° from the horizontal and extended several hundred kilometers into the Earth. These zones later became known as Wadati-Benioff zones, or simply Benioff zones, in honor of the seismologists who first recognized them, Kiyoo Wadati of Japan and Hugo Benioff of the United States. The study of global seismicity greatly advanced in the 1960s with the establishment of the Worldwide Standardized Seismograph Network (WWSSN) to monitor the compliance of the 1963 treaty banning above-ground testing of nuclear weapons. The much-improved data from the WWSSN instruments allowed seismologists to map precisely the zones of earthquake concentration world wide.
Continental drift theory helps biogeographers to explain the disjunct biogeographic distribution of present day life found on different continents but having similar ancestors. In particular, it explains the Gondwanan distribution of ratites and the Antarctic flora.
Reconstruction is used to establish past (and future) plate configurations, helping determine the shape and make-up of ancient supercontinents and providing a basis for paleogeography.
Current plate boundaries are defined by their seismicity. Past plate boundaries within existing plates are identified from evidence of vanished oceans, such as ophiolites.
Various types of quantitative and semi-quantitative information are available to constrain past plate motions. The geometric fit between continents, such as between west Africa and South America is still an important part of plate reconstruction. Magnetic stripe patterns provide a reliable guide to relative plate motions going back into the Jurassic period. The tracks of hotspots give absolute reconstructions but these are only available back to the Cretaceous. Older reconstructions rely mainly on paleomagnetic pole data, although these only constrain the latitude and not the longitude. Combining poles of different ages in a particular plate to produce apparent polar wander paths provides a method for comparing the motions of different plates through time. Additional evidence comes from the distribution of certain sedimentary rock types, faunal provinces shown by particular fossil groups and the position of orogenic belts.
The appearance of plate tectonics on terrestrial planets is related to planetary mass, with more massive planets than Earth expected to exhibit plate tectonics. Earth may be a borderline case, owing its tectonic activity to abundant water. (Silica and water form a deep eutectic.)
Venus shows no evidence of active plate tectonics. There is debatable evidence of active tectonics in the planet's distant past; however, events taking place since then (such as the plausible and generally accepted hypothesis that the Venusian lithosphere has thickened greatly over the course of several hundred million years) has made constraining the course of its geologic record difficult. However, the numerous well-preserved impact craters have been utilized as a dating method to approximately date the Venusian surface (since there are thus far no known samples of Venusian rock to be dated by more reliable methods). Dates derived are dominantly in the range ~500 to 750 Ma, although ages of up to ~1.2 Ga have been calculated. This research has led to the fairly well accepted hypothesis that Venus has undergone an essentially complete volcanic resurfacing at least once in its distant past, with the last event taking place approximately within the range of estimated surface ages. While the mechanism of such an impressive thermal event remains a debated issue in Venusian geosciences, some scientists are advocates of processes involving plate motion to some extent.
One explanation for Venus' lack of plate tectonics is that on Venus temperatures are too high for significant water to be present. The Earth's crust is soaked with water, and water plays an important role in the development of shear zones. Plate tectonics requires weak surfaces in the crust along which crustal slices can move, and it may well be that such weakening never took place on Venus because of the absence of water. However, some researchers remain convinced that plate tectonics is or was once active on this planet.
Mars is considerably smaller than Earth and Venus, and there is evidence for ice on its surface and in its crust.
In the 1990s, it was proposed that Martian Crustal Dichotomy was created by plate tectonic processes. Scientists today disagree, and believe that it was created either by upwelling within the Martian mantle that thickened the crust of the Southern Highlands and formed Tharsis, or by a giant impact that excavated the Northern Lowlands.
Observations made of the magnetic field of Mars by the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft in 1999 showed patterns of magnetic striping discovered on this planet. Some scientists interpreted these as requiring plate tectonic processes, such as seafloor spreading. However, their data fail a "magnetic reversal test", which is used to see if they were formed by flipping polarities of a global magnetic field.
Some of the satellites of Jupiter have features that may be related to plate-tectonic style deformation, although the materials and specific mechanisms may be different from plate-tectonic activity on Earth.
Plate tectonics  is a theory of geology. It has been developed to explain large scale motions of the Earth's lithosphere. This theory builds on older ideas of continental drift and seafloor spreading.
Dissipation of heat from the mantle is the original source of energy driving plate tectonics. Exactly how this works is still a matter of debate. The driving forces of plate motion continue to be active subjects of on-going research.
The outermost part of the Earth's interior is made up of two layers. The lithosphere, above, includes the crust and the rigid uppermost part of the mantle.
Below the lithosphere is the asthenosphere. Although solid, the asthenosphere can flow like a liquid on long time scales. Large convection currents in the asthenosphere transfer heat to the surface, where plumes of less dense magma break apart the plates at the spreading centers. The deeper mantle below the asthenosphere is more rigid again. This is caused by extremely high pressure.
Ocean lithosphere varies in thickness. Because it is formed at mid-ocean ridges and spreads outwards, its thickness is a function of its distance from the mid-ocean ridge where it was formed. Typically, the thickness varies from about 6 km thick at mid-ocean ridges to greater than 100 km at subduction zones.
Continental lithosphere is typically ~200 km thick, though this also varies considerably between basins, mountain ranges, and stable cratonic interiors of continents. The two types of crust also differ in thickness, with continental crust being considerably thicker than oceanic (35 km vs. 6 km).
The lithosphere consists of tectonic plates. There are eight major and many minor plates. The lithospheric plates ride on the asenosphere. These plates move at one of three types of plate boundaries.
Depending on how they are defined, there are usually seven or eight major plates:
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