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Plate Tectonics

Plate tectonics describes the motions of the 15 to 20 large rigid and brittle tectonic plates into which the Earth’s outermost layer (called the “lithosphere”) is broken. It does a good job at explaining the distribution of most of Earth’s earthquakes, mountains and other geological features, and a particularly good job at explaining features on the ocean floor. However, it is challenged to explain the details of the older rocks on the continents, and the occurrence of deformation an earthquakes off of plate boundaries.

Beyond merely describing current plate motions, Plate Tectonics provides an overarching framework that connects many elements of Earth science. Plate tectonics is a relatively young scientific theory that needed the advancement of observational and computing technology in the 1950s and 1960s to become fully elaborated. Its explanatory gravitas and the weight of observational evidence overcame much initial skepticism over how mobile the Earth’s surface really is, and Plate Tectonics quickly became universally accepted by scientists throughout the world.

Evidence for the theory

Although the widespread acceptance of the theory of plate tectonics is German scientist Alfred Wegener first advanced the hypothesis back in 1912.

A map of the original supercontinent, Pangaea, with modern continent outlines. Kieff, CC BY-SA


He noted that the Earth’s current landmasses could fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. After analyzing fossil records that showed similar species once lived in now geographically remote locations, meteorologist Wegener proposed that the continents had once been fused. But without a mechanism to explain how the continents could actually “drift,” most geologists dismissed his ideas. His “amateur” status, combined with anti-German sentiment in the period after World War I, meant his hypothesis was deemed speculative at best.

In 1966, Tuzo Wilson built on earlier ideas to provide a missing link: the Atlantic ocean had opened and closed at least once before. By studying rock types, he found that parts of New England and Canada were of European origin, and that parts of Norway and Scotland were American. From this evidence, Wilson showed that the Atlantic Ocean had opened, closed and re-opened again, taking parts of its neighboring landmasses with it.

And there it was: proof our planet’s continents were not stationary.

How plate tectonics Works

Earth’s crust and top part of the mantle (the next layer in toward the core of our planet) run about 150 km deep. Together, they’re called the lithosphere and make up the “plates” in plate tectonics. We now know there are 15 major plates that cover the planet’s surface, moving at around the speed at which our fingernails grow.

Based on radiometric dating of rocks, we know that no ocean is more than 200 million years old, though our continents are much older. The oceans’ opening and closing process – called the Wilson cycle – explains how the Earth’s surface evolves.

A continent breaks up due to changes in the way molten rock in the Earth’s interior is flowing. That in turn acts on the lithosphere, changing the direction plates move. This is how, for instance, South America broke away from Africa. The next step is continental drift, sea-floor spreading, ocean formation – and hello, Atlantic Ocean. In fact, the Atlantic is still opening, generating new plate material in the middle of the ocean and making the flight from New York to London a few inches longer each year.

A simplified ‘Wilson Cycle’. Philip Heron, CC BY

Oceans close when their tectonic plate sinks beneath another, a process geologists call subduction. Off the Pacific Northwest coast of the United States, the ocean is slipping under the continent and into the mantle below the lithosphere, creating in slow motion Mount St Helens and the Cascade mountain range.

In addition to undergoing spreading (construction) and subduction (destruction), plates can simply rub up against each other – usually generating large earthquakes. These interactions, also discovered by Tuzo Wilson back in the 1960s, are termed “conservative.” All three processes occur at the edges of plate boundaries.

But the conventional theory of plate tectonics stumbles when it tries to explain some things. For example, what produces mountain ranges and earthquakes that occur within continental interiors, far from plate boundaries?

A simplified ‘Wilson Cycle’

What are plates?

The lithosphere consists of rigid plates on a non-rigid subsurface (from approximately 70 km – 700 km in depth). Tectonic processes mostly take place at the plate edges. A plate moves as a single entity along the surface of the Earth over a plastic mantle. There are two types of plate:

Oceanic plates form at the mid-ocean ridges. They thicken as they move away (at about 1 km for every million years) and have a basaltic composition.

Continental plates are much more complex as their rocks vary in composition and thickness.

The differences between oceanic and continental plates go down to a few hundred kilometres.

The plates move under horizontal forces that cause them to collide, combine, break up, or, in the case of oceanic plates, to be drawn down (subducted). The forces that act on or near mid-oceanic ridges are called ridge-push force. It is driven by upwelling magmas from mantle regions that drive the plates away on either side of the ridge. Another driving force (particularly where oceanic plates are being subducted beneath continental plates) is slab-pull. This is produced by oceanic plates being significantly cooler and hence denser than the underlying mantle. They get pulled below the adjoining continental plate, dragging the remaining ocean plate after it. At the base of the plate, drag occurs as it moves over the underlying mantle.

Continental land masses and major ocean floors contrast strongly. For example, Mount Everest, the highest bit of continent, is 8 848 m, yet the Marianas Trench with a depth of 10 912 m, is vertically greater.

Plate boundaries

Lithospheric plates are much thicker than oceanic or continental crust. Their boundaries do not usually coincide with those between oceans and continents, and their behaviour is only partly influenced by whether they carry oceans, continents, or both. The Pacific Plate, for example, is entirely oceanic, whereas the North American Plate is capped by continental crust in the west (the North American continent) and by oceanic crust in the east and extends under the Atlantic Ocean as far as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

A general discussion of plate tectonics.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

In a simplified example of plate motion shown in the figure, movement of plate A to the left relative to plates B and C results in several types of simultaneous interactions along the plate boundaries. At the rear, plates A and B move apart, or diverge, resulting in extension and the formation of a divergent margin. At the front, plates A and B overlap, or converge, resulting in compression and the formation of a convergent margin. Along the sides, the plates slide past one another, a process called shear. As these zones of shear link other plate boundaries to one another, they are called transform faults.

Theoretical diagram showing the effects of an advancing tectonic plate on other adjacent, but stationary, tectonic plates. At the advancing edge of plate A, the overlap with plate B creates a convergent boundary. In contrast, the gap left behind the trailing edge of plate A forms a divergent boundary with plate B. As plate A slides past portions of both plate B and plate C, transform boundaries develop.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Divergent margins

As plates move apart at a divergent plate boundary, the release of pressure produces partial melting of the underlying mantle. This molten material, known as magma, is basaltic in composition and is buoyant. As a result, it wells up from below and cools close to the surface to generate new crust. Because new crust is formed, divergent margins are also called constructive margins.

Continental rifting

Upwelling of magma causes the overlying lithosphere to uplift and stretch. (Whether magmatism [the formation of igneous rock from magma] initiates the rifting or whether rifting decompresses the mantle and initiates magmatism is a matter of significant debate.) If the diverging plates are capped by continental crust, fractures develop that are invaded by the ascending magma, prying the continents farther apart. Settling of the continental blocks creates a rift valley, such as the present-day East African Rift Valley. As the rift continues to widen, the continental crust becomes progressively thinner until separation of the plates is achieved and a new ocean is created. The ascending partial melt cools and crystallizes to form new crust. Because the partial melt is basaltic in composition, the new crust is oceanic, and an ocean ridgedevelops along the site of the former continental rift. Consequently, diverging plate boundaries, even if they originate within continents, eventually come to lie in ocean basins of their own making.

rift valley; Thingvellir National ParkThe Thingvellir fracture zone at Thingvellir National Park in southwestern Iceland is an example of a rift valley. The Thingvellir fracture lies in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which extends through the centre of Iceland.© Ihervas/Shutterstock.com

Seafloor spreading

As upwelling of magma continues, the plates continue to diverge, a process known as seafloor spreading. Samples collected from the ocean floor show that the age of oceanic crust increases with distance from the spreading centre—important evidence in favour of this process. These age data also allow the rate of seafloor spreading to be determined, and they show that rates vary from about 0.1 cm (0.04 inch) per year to 17 cm (6.7 inches) per year. Seafloor-spreading rates are much more rapid in the Pacific Ocean than in the Atlantic and Indian oceans. At spreading rates of about 15 cm (6 inches) per year, the entire crust beneath the Pacific Ocean (about 15,000 km [9,300 miles] wide) could be produced in 100 million years.

age of Earth’s oceanic crustMap showing the age of Earth’s oceanic crust and the pattern of seafloor spreading at the global scale.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Divergence and creation of oceanic crust are accompanied by much volcanic activity and by many shallow earthquakes as the crust repeatedly rifts, heals, and rifts again. Brittle earthquake-prone rocks occur only in the shallow crust. Deep earthquakes, in contrast, occur less frequently, due to the high heat flow in the mantle rock. These regions of oceanic crust are swollen with heat and so are elevated by 2 to 3 km (1.2 to 1.9 miles) above the surrounding seafloor. The elevated topographyresults in a feedback scenario in which the resulting gravitational force pushes the crust apart, allowing new magma to well up from below, which in turn sustains the elevated topography. Its summits are typically 1 to 5 km (0.6 to 3.1 miles) below the ocean surface. On a global scale, these ridges form an interconnected system of undersea “mountains” that are about 65,000 km (40,000 miles) in length and are called oceanic ridges.

Convergent margins

Given that Earth is constant in volume, the continuous formation of Earth’s new crust produces an excess that must be balanced by destruction of crust elsewhere. This is accomplished at convergent plate boundaries, also known as destructive plate boundaries, where one plate descends at an angle—that is, is subducted—beneath the other.

Because oceanic crust cools as it ages, it eventually becomes denser than the underlying asthenosphere, and so it has a tendency to subduct, or dive under, adjacent continental plates or younger sections of oceanic crust. The life span of the oceanic crust is prolonged by its rigidity, but eventually this resistance is overcome. Experiments show that the subducted oceanic lithosphere is denser than the surrounding mantle to a depth of at least 600 km (about 400 miles).

The mechanisms responsible for initiating subduction zones are controversial. During the late 20th and early 21st centuries, evidence emerged supporting the notion that subduction zones preferentially initiate along preexisting fractures (such as transform faults) in the oceanic crust. Irrespective of the exact mechanism, the geologic record indicates that the resistance to subduction is overcome eventually.

Where two oceanic plates meet, the older, denser plate is preferentially subducted beneath the younger, warmer one. Where one of the plate margins is oceanic and the other is continental, the greater buoyancy of continental crust prevents it from sinking, and the oceanic plate is preferentially subducted. Continents are preferentially preserved in this manner relative to oceanic crust, which is continuously recycled into the mantle. This explains why ocean floor rocks are generally less than 200 million years old whereas the oldest continental rocks are more than 4 billion years old. Before the middle of the 20th century, most geoscientists maintained that continental crust was too buoyant to be subducted. However, it later became clear that slivers of continental crust adjacent to the deep-sea trench, as well as sediments deposited in the trench, may be dragged down the subduction zone. The recycling of this material is detected in the chemistry of volcanoes that erupt above the subduction zone.

Two plates carrying continental crust collide when the oceanic lithosphere between them has been eliminated. Eventually, subduction ceases and towering mountain ranges, such as the Himalayas, are created. See below Mountains by continental collision.

Because the plates form an integrated system, it is not necessary that new crust formed at any given divergent boundary be completely compensated at the nearest subduction zone, as long as the total amount of crust generated equals that destroyed.

Subduction zones

The subduction process involves the descent into the mantle of a slab of cold hydrated oceanic lithosphere about 100 km (60 miles) thick that carries a relatively thin cap of oceanic sediments. The path of descent is defined by numerous earthquakes along a plane that is typically inclined between 30° and 60° into the mantle and is called the Wadati-Benioff zone, for Japanese seismologist Kiyoo Wadati and American seismologist Hugo Benioff, who pioneered its study. Between 10 and 20 percent of the subduction zones that dominate the circum-Pacific ocean basin are subhorizontal (that is, they subduct at angles between 0° and 20°). The factors that govern the dip of the subduction zone are not fully understood, but they probably include the age and thickness of the subducting oceanic lithosphere and the rate of plate convergence.

subducting tectonic plateA subducting plate’s path (called the Benioff-Wadati [or Wadati-Benioff] zone) is defined by numerous earthquakes along a plane that is typically inclined between 30° and 60° into the mantle.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Most, but not all, earthquakes in this planar dipping zone result from compression, and the seismic activity extends 300 to 700 km (200 to 400 miles) below the surface, implying that the subducted crust retains some rigidity to this depth. At greater depths the subducted plate is partially recycled into the mantle.

The site of subduction is marked by a deep trench, between 5 and 11 km (3 and 7 miles) deep, that is produced by frictional drag between the plates as the descending plate bends before it subducts. The overriding plate scrapes sediments and elevated portions of ocean floor off the upper crust of the lower plate, creating a zone of highly deformed rocks within the trench that becomes attached, or accreted, to the overriding plate. This chaotic mixture is known as an accretionary wedge.

The rocks in the subduction zone experience high pressures but relatively low temperatures, an effect of the descent of the cold oceanic slab. Under these conditions the rocks recrystallize, or metamorphose, to form a suite of rocks known as blueschists, named for the diagnostic blue mineral called glaucophane, which is stable only at the high pressures and low temperatures found in subduction zones. (See alsometamorphic rock.) At deeper levels in the subduction zone (that is, greater than 30–35 km [about 19–22 miles]), eclogites, which consist of high-pressure minerals such as red garnet (pyrope) and omphacite (pyroxene), form. The formation of eclogite from blueschist is accompanied by a significant increase in density and has been recognized as an important additional factor that facilitates the subduction process.

Island arcs

When the downward-moving slab reaches a depth of about 100 km (60 miles), it gets sufficiently warm to drive off its most volatile components, thereby stimulating partial melting of mantle in the plate above the subduction zone (known as the mantle wedge). Melting in the mantle wedge produces magma, which is predominantly basaltic in composition. This magma rises to the surface and gives birth to a line of volcanoes in the overriding plate, known as a volcanic arc, typically a few hundred kilometres behind the oceanic trench. The distance between the trench and the arc, known as the arc-trench gap, depends on the angle of subduction. Steeper subduction zones have relatively narrow arc-trench gaps. A basin may form within this region, known as a fore-arc basin, and may be filled with sediments derived from the volcanic arc or with remains of oceanic crust.

If both plates are oceanic, as in the western Pacific Ocean, the volcanoes form a curved line of islands, known as an island arc, that is parallel to the trench, as in the case of the Mariana Islands and the adjacent Mariana Trench. If one plate is continental, the volcanoes form inland, as they do in the Andes of western South America. Though the process of magma generation is similar, the ascending magma may change its composition as it rises through the thick lid of continental crust, or it may provide sufficient heat to melt the crust. In either case, the composition of the volcanic mountains formed tends to be more silicon-rich and iron- and magnesium-poor relative to the volcanic rocks produced by ocean-ocean convergence.

Back-arc basins

Where both converging plates are oceanic, the margin of the older oceanic crust will be subducted because older oceanic crust is colder and therefore more dense. As the dense slab collapses into the asthenosphere, however, it also may “roll back” oceanward and cause extension in the overlying plate. This results in a process known as back-arc spreading, in which a basin opens up behind the island arc. The crust behind the arc becomes progressively thinner, and the decompression of the underlying mantle causes the crust to melt, initiating seafloor-spreading processes, such as melting and the production of basalt; these processes are similar to those that occur at ocean ridges. The geochemistry of the basalts produced at back-arc basins superficially resembles that of basalts produced at ocean ridges, but subtle trace element analyses can detect the influence of a nearby subducted slab.

The trench “roll back” process of back-arc basin formation.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

This style of subduction predominates in the western Pacific Ocean, in which a number of back-arc basins separate several island arcs from Asia. Examples include the Mariana Islands, the Kuril Islands, and the main islands of Japan. However, if the rate of convergence increases or if anomalously thick oceanic crust (possibly caused by rising mantle plume activity) is conveyed into the subduction zone, the slab may flatten. Such flattening causes the back-arc basin to close, resulting in deformation, metamorphism, and even melting of the strata deposited in the basin.

The slab “sea anchor” process of back-arc basin formation.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Mountain building

If the rate of subduction in an ocean basin exceeds the rate at which the crust is formed at oceanic ridges, a convergent margin forms as the ocean initially contracts. This process can lead to collision between the approaching continents, which eventually terminates subduction. Mountain building can occur in a number of ways at a convergent margin: mountains may rise as a consequence of the subduction process itself, by the accretion of small crustal fragments (which, along with linear island chains and oceanic ridges, are known as terranes), or by the collision of two large continents.

Many mountain belts were developed by a combination of these processes. For example, the Cordilleran mountain belt of North America—which includes the Rocky Mountains as well as the Cascades, the Sierra Nevada, and other mountain ranges near the Pacific coast—developed by a combination of subduction and terrane accretion. As continental collisions are usually preceded by a long history of subduction and terrane accretion, many mountain belts record all three processes. Over the past 70 million years the subduction of the Neo-Tethys Sea, a wedge-shaped body of water that was located between Gondwana and Laurasia, led to the accretion of terranes along the margins of Laurasia, followed by continental collisions beginning about 30 million years ago between Africa and Europe and between India and Asia. These collisions culminated in the formation of the Alps and the Himalayas.

Jurassic paleogeographyDistribution of landmasses, mountainous regions, shallow seas, and deep ocean basins during the late Jurassic Period. Included in the paleogeographic reconstruction are the locations of the interval’s subduction zones.Adapted from: C.R. Scotese, The University of Texas at Arlington

Mountains by subduction

Mountain building by subduction is classically demonstrated in the Andes Mountains of South America. Subduction results in voluminous magmatism in the mantle and crust overlying the subduction zone, and, therefore, the rocks in this region are warm and weak. Although subduction is a long-term process, the uplift that results in mountains tends to occur in discrete episodes and may reflect intervals of stronger plate convergence that squeezes the thermally weakened crust upward. For example, rapid uplift of the Andes approximately 25 million years ago is evidenced by a reversal in the flow of the Amazon River from its ancestral path toward the Pacific Ocean to its modern path, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean.

In addition, models have indicated that the episodic opening and closing of back-arc basins have been the major factors in mountain-building processes, which have influenced the plate-tectonic evolution of the western Pacific for at least the past 500 million years.

Transform faults

Along the third type of plate boundary, two plates move laterally and pass each other along giant fractures in Earth’s crust. Transform faultsare so named because they are linked to other types of plate boundaries. The majority of transform faults link the offset segments of oceanic ridges. However, transform faults also occur between plate margins with continental crust—for example, the San Andreas Fault in California and the North Anatolian fault system in Turkey. These boundaries are conservative because plate interaction occurs without creating or destroying crust. Because the only motion along these faults is the sliding of plates past each other, the horizontal direction along the fault surface must parallel the direction of plate motion. The fault surfaces are rarely smooth, and pressure may build up when the plates on either side temporarily lock. This buildup of stress may be suddenly released in the form of an earthquake.

Section of the San Andreas Fault in the Carrizo Plain, western California.U.S. Geological Survey

Many transform faults in the Atlantic Ocean are the continuation of major faults in adjacent continents, which suggests that the orientation of these faults might be inherited from preexisting weaknesses in continental crust during the earliest stages of the development of oceanic crust. On the other hand, transform faults may themselves be reactivated, and recent geodynamic models suggest that they are favourable environments for the initiation of subduction zones.


Although most of Earth’s volcanic activity is concentrated along or adjacent to plate boundaries, there are some important exceptions in which this activity occurs within plates. Linear chains of islands, thousands of kilometres in length, that occur far from plate boundaries are the most notable examples. These island chains record a typical sequence of decreasing elevation along the chain, from volcanic island to fringing reef to atoll and finally to submerged seamount. An active volcano usually exists at one end of an island chain, with progressively older extinct volcanoes occurring along the rest of the chain. Canadian geophysicist J. Tuzo Wilson and American geophysicist W. Jason Morgan explained such topographic features as the result of hotspots.

The principal tectonic plates that make up Earth’s lithosphere. Also located are several dozen hot spots where plumes of hot mantle material are upwelling beneath the plates.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

earthquake zones; volcanoesThe world’s earthquake zones occur in red bands and largely coincide with the boundaries of Earth’s tectonic plates. Black dots indicate active volcanoes, whereas open dots indicate inactive ones.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

The number of these hotspots is uncertain (estimates range from 20 to 120), but most occur within a plate rather than at a plate boundary. Hotspots are thought to be the surface expression of giant plumes of heat, termed mantle plumes, that ascend from deep within the mantle, possibly from the core-mantle boundary, some 2,900 km (1,800 miles) below the surface. These plumes are thought to be stationary relative to the lithospheric plates that move over them. A volcano builds upon the surface of a plate directly above the plume. As the plate moves on, however, the volcano is separated from its underlying magma source and becomes extinct. Extinct volcanoes are eroded as they cool and subside to form fringing reefs and atolls, and eventually they sink below the surface of the sea to form a seamount. At the same time, a new active volcano forms directly above the mantle plume.

Diagram depicting the process of atoll formation. Atolls are formed from the remnant parts of sinking volcanic islands.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

The best example of this process is preserved in the Hawaiian-Emperor seamount chain. The plume is presently situated beneath Hawaii, and a linear chain of islands, atolls, and seamounts extends 3,500 km (2,200 miles) northwest to Midway and a further 2,500 km (1,500 miles) north-northwest to the Aleutian Trench. The age at which volcanism became extinct along this chain gets progressively older with increasing distance from Hawaii—critical evidence that supports this theory. Hotspot volcanism is not restricted to the ocean basins; it also occurs within continents, as in the case of Yellowstone National Park in western North America.

Measurements suggest that hotspots may move relative to one another, a situation not predicted by the classical model, which describes the movement of lithospheric plates over stationary mantle plumes. This has led to challenges to this classic model. Furthermore, the relationship between hotspots and plumes is hotly debated. Proponents of the classical model maintain that these discrepancies are due to the effects of mantle circulation as the plumes ascend, a process called the mantle wind. Data from alternative models suggest that many plumes are not deep-rooted. Instead, they provide evidence that many mantle plumes occur as linear chains that inject magma into fractures, result from relatively shallow processes such as the localized presence of water-rich mantle, stem from the insulating properties of continental crust (which leads to the buildup of trapped mantle heat and decompression of the crust), or are due to instabilities in the interface between continental and oceanic crust. In addition, some geologists note that many geologic processes that others attribute to the behaviour of mantle plumes may be explained by other forces.

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