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Plate tectonics

Plate tectonics is based on the theory that the Earth`s lithosphere consists of large, rigid plates that move horizontally in response to the flow of the asthenosphere beneath them, and that interactions among the plates at their borders cause most major geologic activity, including the creation of oceans, continents, mountains, volcanoes, and earthquakes.

Plate tectonics is a relatively new theory that has revolutionized the way geologists think about the Earth. According to the theory, the surface of the Earth is broken into large plates. The size and position of these plates change over time. The edges of these plates, where they move against each other, are sites of intense geologic activity, such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and mountain building. Plate tectonics is a combination of two earlier ideas, continental drift and sea-floor spreading. Continental drift is the movement of continents over the Earth`s surface and in their change in position relative to each other. Sea-floor spreading is the creation of new oceanic crust at mid-ocean ridges and movement of the crust away from the mid-ocean ridges.

Only lithosphere has the strength and the brittle behavior to fracture in an earthquake. 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.

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.

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