Plate tectonics


The uppermost outer solid and rigid layer of the earth is called crust. Its thickness varies considerably. It is as little as 5 km thick beneath the oceans at some places but under some mountain ranges it extends upto a depth of 700km. Below the crust denser rocks are found, known as mantle crust. This upper part of mantle upto an average depth of 100 km from the surface is solid. This solid mantle plus upper crust form a comparatively rigid block termed as lithosphere. Mantle is partially molten between 100 to 250 km depth. This zone is said to be asthenosphere, also known as Mohr discontinuity, a simplification of Mohorovicic, the name of the seismologist who discovered it.
The lithosphere is broken into several blocks. These blocks are known as plates, which are moving over asthenosphere. There are seven major plates.


While the continents do indeed appear to drift, they do so only because they are part of larger plates that float and move horizontally on the upper mantle asthenosphere. The plates behave as rigid bodies with some ability to flex, but deformation occurs mainly along the boundaries between plates.




The plate boundaries can be identified because they are zones along which earthquakes occur.Plate interiors have much fewer earthquakes.

There are three types of plate boundaries:

  1. Divergent Plate boundaries, where plates move away from each other.
  2. Convergent Plate Boundaries, where plates move toward each other.
  3. Transform Plate Boundaries, where plates slide past one another.

Divergent Plate Boundaries

These are oceanic ridges where new oceanic lithosphere is created by upwelling mantle that melts, resulting in basaltic magmas which intrude and erupt at the oceanic ridge to create new oceanic lithosphere and crust. As new oceanic lithosphere is created, it is pushed aside in opposite directions. Thus, the age of the oceanic crust becomes progressively older in both directions away from the ridge.

Because oceanic lithosphere may get subducted, the age of the ocean basins is relatively young. The oldest oceanic crust occurs farthest away from a ridge. In the Atlantic Ocean, the oldest oceanic crust occurs next to the North American and African continents and is about 160 million years old (Jurassic)

. In the Pacific Ocean, the oldest crust is also Jurassic in age, and occurs off the coast of Japan.

Because the oceanic ridges are areas of young crust, there is very little sediment accumulation on the ridges. Sediment thickness increases in both directions away of the ridge, and is thickest where the oceanic crust is the oldest. Knowing the age of the crust and the distance from the ridge, the relative velocity of the plates can be determined.

Relative plate velocities vary both for individual plates and for different plates.

Sea floor topography is controlled by the age of the oceanic lithosphere and the rate of spreading.

If the spreading rate (relative velocity) is high, magma must be rising rapidly and the lithosphere is relatively hot beneath the ridge. Thus for fast spreading centers the ridge stands at higher elevations than for slow spreading centers. The rift valley at fast spreading centers is narrower than at slow spreading centers. As oceanic lithosphere moves away from the ridge, it cools and sinks deeper into the asthenosphere. Thus, the depth to the sea floor increases with increasing age away from the ridge.


Convergent Plate Boundaries

When a plate of dense oceanic lithosphere moving in one direction collides with a plate moving in the opposite direction, one of the plates subducts beneath the other. Where this occurs an oceanic trench forms on the sea floor and the sinking plate becomes a subduction zone. The Wadati-Benioff Zone, a zone of earthquakes located along the subduction zone, identifies a subduction zone. The earthquakes may extend down to depths of 700 km before the subducting plate heats up and loses its ability to deform in a brittle fashion.

As the oceanic plate subducts, it begins to heat up causing the release water of water into the overlying mantle asthenosphere. The water reduces the melting temperature and results in the production of magmas. These magmas rise to the surface and create a volcanic arc parallel to the trench. If the subduction occurs beneath oceanic lithosphere, an island arc is produced at the surface (such as the Japanese islands, the Aleutian Islands, the Philippine islands, or the Caribbean islands

Transform Plate Boundaries

Where lithospheric plates slide past one another in a horizontal manner, a transform fault is created. Earthquakes along such transform faults are shallow focus earthquakes.

Most transform faults occur where oceanic ridges are offset on the sea floor. Such offset occurs because spreading takes place on the spherical surface of the Earth, and some parts of a plate must be moving at a higher relative velocity than other parts One of the largest such transform boundaries occurs along the boundary of the North American and Pacific plates and is known as the San Andreas Fault. Here the transform fault cuts through continental lithosphere

Triple Junctions occur at points where thee plates meet.

Hot Spots

Areas where rising plumes of hot mantle reach the surface, usually at locations far removed from plate boundaries are called hot spots. Because plates move relative to the underlying mantle, hot spots beneath oceanic lithosphere produce a chain of volcanoes. A volcano is active while it is over the vicinity of the hot spot, but eventually plate motion results in the volcano moving away from the plume and the volcano becomes extinct and begins to erode.

Because the Pacific Plate is one of the faster moving plates, this type of volcanism produces linear chains of islands and seamounts, such as the

  • Hawaiian – Emperor chain, the Line
  • Islands, the Marshall-Ellice Islands,
  • and the Austral seamount chain


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