plate tectonics, theory that unifies many of the features and characteristics of continental drift and seafloor spreading into a coherent model and has revolutionized geologists' understanding of continents, ocean basins, mountains, and earth history.
Development of Plate Tectonics Theory
The beginnings of the theory of plate tectonics date to around 1920, when Alfred Wegener, the German meteorologist and geophysicist, presented the first detailed accounts of how today's continents were once a large supercontinent that slowly drifted to their present positions. Others brought forth evidence, but plate tectonics processes and continental drift did not attract wide interest until the late 1950s, when scientists found the alignment of magnetic particles in rock responded to the earth's magnetic field of that time. Plotting paleomagnetic polar changes (see paleomagnetism) showed that all continents had moved across the earth over time.
Synthesized from these findings and others in geology, oceanography, and geophysics, plate tectonics theory holds that the lithosphere, the hard outer layer of the earth, is divided into about 7 major plates and perhaps as many as 12 smaller plates, c.60 mi (100 km) thick, resting upon a lower soft layer called the asthenosphere. Because the sides of a plate are either being created or destroyed, its size and shape are continually changing. Such active plate tectonics make studying global tectonic history, especially for the ocean plates, difficult for times greater than 200 million years ago. The continents, which are c.25 mi (40 km) thick, are embedded in some of the plates, and hence move as the plates move about on the earth's surface.
The mechanism moving the plates is at present unknown, but is probably related to the transfer of heat energy or convection within the earth's mantle. If true, and the convection continues, the earth will continue to cool. This will eventually halt the mantle's motion allowing the crust to stabilize, much like what has happened on other planets and satellites in the solar system, such as Mars and the moon.
Plate Boundary Conditions
There are numerous major plate boundary conditions. When a large continental mass breaks into smaller pieces under tensional stresses, it does so along a series of cracks or faults, which may develop into a major system of normal faults. The crust often subsides, forming a rift valley similar to what is happening today in the Great Rift Valley through the Red Sea. If rifting continues, a new plate boundary will form by the process of seafloor spreading. Mid-ocean ridges, undersea mountain chains, are the locus of seafloor spreading and are the sites where new oceanic lithosphere is created by the upwelling of mantle asthenosphere.
Individual volcanoes are found along spreading centers of the mid-ocean ridge and at isolated "hot spots," or rising magma regions, not always associated with plate boundaries. The source of hot-spot magmas is believed to be well below the lithosphere, probably at the core-mantle boundary. Hot-spot volcanoes often form long chains that result from the relative motion of the lithosphere plate over the hot-spot source.
Subduction zones along the leading edges of the shifting plates form a second type of boundary where the edges of lithospheric plates dive steeply into the earth and are reabsorbed at depths of over 400 mi (640 km). Earthquake foci form steeply inclined planes along the subduction zones, extending to depths of about 440 mi (710 km); the world's most destructive earthquakes occur along subduction zones.
A third type of boundary occurs where two plates slide past one another in a grinding, shearing manner along great faults called strike-slip faults or fracture zones along which the oceanic ridges are offset. Continental mountain ranges are formed when two plates containing continental crust collide. For example, the Himalayas are still rising as the plates carrying India and Eurasia come together. Mountains are also formed when ocean crust is subducted along a continental margin, resulting in melting of rock, volcanic activity, and compressional deformation of the continent margin. This is currently happening with the Andes Mts. and is believed to have occurred with the uplift of the Rockies and the Appalachians in the past.
Movement of the Continents
According to plate tectonics, the ocean basins are viewed as transient features that have periodically opened and closed, first rending and then suturing the continental masses, which are permanent features on the earth's surface. Geologists now believe that the continents were sutured together 200 million years ago at the beginning of the Mesozoic era to form a supercontinent named Pangaea. Initial rifting along the Tethys Sea formed a northern continental mass, Laurasia, and a southern continental mass, Gondwanaland. Then plate movements caused North American and Eurasian separation coincidentally with the separation of South America, Africa, and India. Australia and Antarctica were the last to separate. The major plates are named after the dominant geographic feature on them such as the North American and South American plates.
Plate motions are believed to have transported large crustal blocks several thousand miles, suturing very different terrains together after collision with a larger mass. These "exotic" terrains may include segments of island arcs quite unrelated to the history of the continent onto which they are sutured. Some geologists believe that continents grow in size primarily by the addition of exotic terrains.
See E. M. Moores and R. J. Twiss, Tectonics (1995); B. F. Windley, The Evolving Continents (3d ed. 1995); K. C. Condie, Plate Tectonics and Crustal Evolution (4th ed. 1997); L. P. Zonenshain et al., Paleogeodynamics: The Plate Tectonic Evolution of the Earth (1997).