Plate Tectonics - How it works

Tectonics and Tectonism

The lithosphere is the upper layer of Earth's interior, including the crust and the brittle portion at the top of the mantle. Tectonism is the deformation of the lithosphere, and the term tectonics refers to the study of this deformation, including its causes and effects, most notably mountain building. This deformation is the result of the release and redistribution of energy from Earth's core.

The interior of Earth itself is divided into three major sections: the crust, mantle, and core. The first is the uppermost division of the solid earth, representing less than 1% of its volume and varying in depth from 3 mi. to 37 mi. (5-60 km). Below the crust is the mantle, a thick, dense layer of rock approximately 1,429 mi. (2,300 km) thick. The core itself is even more dense, as illustrated by the fact that it constitutes about 16% of the planet's volume and 32% of its mass. Composed primarily of iron and another, lighter element (possibly sulfur), it is divided between a solid inner core with a radius of about 760 mi. (1,220 km) and a liquid outer core about 1,750 mi. (2,820 km) thick.

Tectonism results from the release and redistribution of energy from Earth's interior. There are two components of this energy: gravity, a function of the enormous mass at the core, and heat from radioactive decay. (For more about gravity, see Gravity and Geodesy. The heat from Earth's core, the source of geothermal energy, is discussed in Energy and Earth.) Differences in mass and heat within the planet's interior, known as pressure gradients, result in the deformation of rocks.


Any attempt to deform an object is referred to as stress, and stress takes many forms, including tension, compression, and shear. Tension acts to stretch a material, whereas compression—a type of stress produced by the action of equal and opposite forces, whose effect is to reduce the length of a material—has the opposite result. (Compression is a form of pressure.) As for shear, this is a kind of stress resulting from equal and opposite forces that do not act along the same line. If a thick, hardbound book is lying flat and one pushes the front cover from the side so that the covers and pages are no longer perfectly aligned, this is an example of shear.

Under the effects of these stresses, rocks may bend, warp, slide, or break. They may even flow, as though they were liquids, or melt and thus truly become liquid. As a result, Earth's interior may manifest faults, or fractures in rocks, as well as folds, or bends in the rock structure. The effects of this activity can be seen on the surface in the form of subsidence, which is a depression in the crust, or uplift, which is the raising of crustal materials. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions also may result.

There are two basic types of tectonism: orogenesis and epeirogenesis. Orogenesis is taken from the Greek words oros ("mountain") and genesis ("origin") and involves the formation of mountain ranges by means of folding, faulting, and volcanic activity. The Greek word epeiros means "mainland," and epeirogenesis takes the form of either uplift or subsidence. Of principal concern in the theory of plate tectonics, as we shall see, is orogenesis, which involves more lateral, as opposed to vertical, movement.

Continental Drift

If one studies a world map for a period of time, one may notice something interesting about the shape of Africa's west coast and that of South America's east coast: they seem to fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Early in the twentieth century, two American geologists, Frank Bursley Taylor (1860-1938) and Howard Baker, were among the first scientists to point out this fact. According to Taylor and Baker, Europe, the Americas, and Africa all had been joined at one time. This was an early version of continental drift, a theory concerning the movement of Earth's continents.

Continental drift is based on the idea that the configuration of continents was once different than it is today, that some of the individual landmasses of today once were joined in other continental forms, and that the landmasses later moved to their present locations. Though Taylor and Baker were early proponents, the theory is associated most closely with the German geophysicist and meteorologist Alfred Wegener (1880-1930), who made the case for continental drift in The Origin of Continents and Oceans (1915).


According to Wegener, the continents of today once formed a single supercontinent called Pangaea, from the Greek words pan ("all") and gaea ("Earth"). Eventually, Pangaea split into two halves, with the northern continent of Laurasia and the southern continent of Gondwanaland, sometimes called Gondwana, separated by the Tethys Sea. In time, Laurasia split to form North America, the Eurasian land-mass with the exception of the Indian subcontinent, and Greenland. Gondwanaland also split, forming the major southern landmasses of the world: Africa, South America, Antarctica, Australia, and India.

The Austrian geologist Eduard Suess (1831-1914) and the South African geologist Alexander du Toit (1878-1948), each of whom contributed significantly to continental drift theory, were responsible for the naming of Gondwanaland and Laurasia, respectively. Suess preceded Wegener by many years with his theory of Gondwanaland, named after the Gondwana region of southern India. There he found examples of a fern that, in fossilized form, had been found in all the modern-day constituents of the proposed former continent. Du Toit, Wegener's contemporary, was influenced by continental drift theory and improved on it greatly.


Today continental drift theory is accepted widely, in large part owing to the development of plate tectonics, "the unifying theory in geology." We examine the evidence for continental drift, the arguments against it, and the eventual triumph of plate tectonics in the course of this essay. Before going on, however, let us consider briefly the now-accepted timeline of events described by Wegener and others.

About 1,100 million years ago (earth scientists typically abbreviate this by using the notation 1,100 Ma), there was a supercontinent named Rodinia, which predated Pangaea. It split into Laurasia and Gondwanaland, which moved to the northern and southern extremes of the planet, respectively. Starting at about 514 Ma, Laurasia drifted southward until it crashed into Gondwanaland about 425 Ma. Pangaea, surrounded by a vast ocean called Panthalassa ("All Ocean"), formed approximately 356 Ma.

In the course of Pangaea's formation, what is now North America smashed into northwestern

© Dr. Ken MacDonald/Photo Researchers
. Reproduced by permission. )
Africa, forming a vast mountain range. Traces of these mountains still can be found on a belt stretching from the southern United States to northern Europe, including the Appalachians. As Pangaea drifted northward and smashed into the ocean floor of Panthalassa, it formed a series of mountain ranges from Alaska to southern South America, including the Rockies and Andes. By about 200 Ma, Pangaea began to break apart, forming a valley that became the Atlantic Ocean. But the separation of the continents was not a "neat" process: today a piece of Gondwanaland lies sunken beneath the eastern United States, far from the other landmasses to which it once was joined.

By about 152 Ma, in the late Jurassic period, the continents as we know them today began to take shape. By about 65 Ma, all the present continents and oceans had been formed for the most part, and India was drifting north, eventually smashing into southern Asia to shape the world's tallest mountains, the Himalayas, the Karakoram Range, and the Hindu Kush. This process is not finished, however, and geologists believe that some 250-300 million years from now, Pangaea will re-form.


As proof of his theory, Wegener cited a wide variety of examples, including the apparent fit between the coastlines of South America and western Africa as well as that of North America and northwestern Africa. He also noted the existence of rocks apparently gouged by glaciers in southern Africa, South America, and India, far from modern-day glacial activity. Fossils in South America matched those in Africa and Australia, as Suess had observed. There were also signs that mountain ranges continued between continents—not only those apparently linking North America and Europe but also ranges that seemed to extend from Argentina to South Africa and Australia.

By measurements conducted over a period of years, Wegener even showed that Greenland was drifting slowly away from Europe, yet his theory met with scorn from the geoscience community of his day. If continents could plow through oceanic rock, some geologists maintained, then they would force up mountains so high that Earth would become imbalanced. As for his claim that matching fossils in widely separated regions confirmed his theory of continental drift, geologists claimed that this could be explained by the existence of land bridges, now sunken, that once had linked those areas. The apparent fit between present-day landmasses could be explained away as coincidence or perhaps as evidence that Earth simply was expanding, with the continents moving away from one another as the planet grew.

Introduction to Plate Tectonics

Though Wegener was right, as it turned out, his theory had one major shortcoming: it provided no explanation of exactly how continental drift had occurred. Even if geologists had accepted his claim that the continents are moving, it raised more questions than answers. A continent is a very large thing simply to float away; even an aircraft carrier, which is many millions of times lighter, has to weigh less than the water it displaces, or it would sink like a stone. In any case, Wegener never claimed that continents floated. How, then, did they move?

The answer is plate tectonics, the name both of a theory and of a specialization of tectonics. As an area of study, plate tectonics deals with the large features of the lithosphere and the forces that fashion them. As a theory, it explains the processes that have shaped Earth in terms of plates (large movable segments of the lithosphere) and their movement. Plate tectonics theory brings together aspects of continental drift, seafloor spreading (discussed later), seismic and volcanic activity, and the structures of Earth's crust to provide a unifying model of Earth's evolution.

It is hard to overemphasize the importance of plate tectonics in the modern earth sciences; hence, its characterization as the "unifying theory." Its significance is demonstrated by its inclusion in the book The Five Biggest Ideas of Science, cited in the bibliography for this essay. Alongside plate tectonics theory in that volume are four towering concepts of extraordinary intellectual power: the atomic model, or the concept that matter is made up of atoms; the periodic law, which explains the chemical elements; big bang theory, astronomers' explanation of the origins of the universe (see Planetary Science); and the theory of evolution in the biological sciences.


In 1962 the United States geologist Harry Hammond Hess (1906-1969) introduced a new concept that would prove pivotal to the theory of plate tectonics: seafloor spreading, the idea that seafloors crack open along the crest of mid-ocean ridges and that new seafloor forms in those areas. (Another American geologist, Robert S. Dietz [1914-1995], had published his own theory of seafloor spreading a year before Hess's, but Hess apparently developed his ideas first.) According to Hess, a new floor forms when molten rock called magma rises up from the asthenosphere, a region of extremely high pressure underlying the lithosphere, where rocks are deformed by enormous stresses. The magma wells up through a crack in a ridge, runs down the sides, and solidifies to form a new floor.

Three years later, the Canadian geologist John Tuzo Wilson (1908-1993) coined the term plates to describe the pieces that make up Earth's rigid surface. Separated either by the mid-ocean rifts identified earlier by Heezen or by mountain chains, the plates move with respect to one another. Wilson presented a model for their behavior and established a global pattern of faults, a sort of map depicting the movable plates. The pieces of a new theory were forming (an apt metaphor in this instance!), but as yet it had no name.

That name appeared in 1967, when D. P. Mackenzie of England and R. L. Parker of the United States introduced the term plate tectonics. They maintained that the surface of Earth is divided into six major as well as seven minor movable plates and compared the continents to enormous icebergs—much as Wegener had described them half a century earlier. Subsequent geologic research has indicated that there may be as many as nine major plates and as many as 12 minor ones.

To test these emerging ideas, the U.S. National Science Foundation authorized a research voyage by the vessel Glomar Challenger in 1968. On their first cruise, through the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic, the Challenger 's scientific team collected sediment, fossil, and crust samples that confirmed the basics of seafloor spreading theory. These results led to new questions regarding the reactions between rocks and the heated water surrounding them, spawning new research and necessitating additional voyages. In the years that followed, the Challenger made more and more cruises, its scientific teams collecting a wealth of evidence for the emerging theory of plate tectonics.

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