Plate Tectonics Theory


  • Plate tectonics(from the Late Latin tectonicus, from the  Greek:  τεκτονικός  “pertaining to building”)is a scientific theory describing the large-scale motion of 7 large plates and the movements of a larger number of smaller plates of the Earth‘s lithosphere, over the last hundreds of millions of years.
  • The theoretical model builds on the concept of continental drift developed during the first few decades of the 20th century. The geo scientific community accepted plate-tectonic theory after seafloor spreading was validated in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
  • The lithosphere, which is the rigid outermost shell of a planet (the crust and upper mantle), is broken up into tectonic plates. The Earth’s lithosphere is composed of seven or eight major plates (depending on how they are defined) and many minor plates.
  • Where the plates meet, their relative motion determines the type of boundary: convergent, divergent, or transform.
  • Earthquakes, volcanic activity, mountain-building, and oceanic trench formation occur along these plate boundaries. The relative movement of the plates typically ranges from zero to 100 mm annually.
  • Tectonic plates are composed of oceanic lithosphere and thicker continental lithosphere, each topped by its own kind of crust.
  • Along convergent boundaries, subduction  carries plates into the mantle; the material lost is roughly balanced by the formation of new (oceanic) crust along divergent margins by seafloor spreading.
  • In this way, the total surface of the lithosphere remains the same. This prediction of plate tectonics is also referred to as the conveyor belt principle. Earlier theories, since disproven, proposed gradual shrinking (contraction) or gradual expansion of the globe.
  • Tectonic plates are able to move because the Earth’s lithosphere has greater strength than the underlying asthenoshere.
  • Lateral density variations in the mantle result in convection.
  • Plate movement is thought to be driven by a combination of the motion of the seafloor away from the spreading ridge (due to variations in topography and density of the crust, which result in differences in gravitational forces) and drag, with downward suction, at the subduction zones.
  • Another explanation lies in the different forces generated by tidal forces of the Sun and Moon.
  • The relative importance of each of these factors and their relationship to each other is unclear, and still the subject of much debate.

Types of Plate Boundaries

Types of Plate Boundaries


A divergent boundary

      • A divergent boundaryoccurs when two tectonic plates move away from each other.
      • Along these boundaries, lava spews from long fissures and geysers spurt superheated water.
      • Frequent earthquakes strike along the rift. Beneath the rift, magma—molten rock—rises from the mantle.
      • It oozes up into the gap and hardens into solid rock, forming new crust on the torn edges of the plates.
      • Magma from the mantle solidifies into basalt, a dark, dense rock that underlies the ocean floor.
      • Thus at divergent boundaries, oceanic crust, made of basalt, is created.

Convergent boundary 

  • When two plates come together, it is known as a convergent boundary.
  • The impact of the two colliding plates buckles the edge of one or both plates up into a rugged mountain range, and sometimes bends the other down into a deep seafloor trench.
  • A chain of volcanoes often forms parallel to the boundary, to the mountain range, and to the trench.
  • Powerful earthquakes shake a wide area on both sides of the boundary.
  • If one of the colliding plates is topped with oceanic crust, it is forced down into the mantle where it begins to melt.
  • Magma rises into and through the other plate, solidifying into new crust. Magma formed from melting plates solidifies into granite, a light colored, low-density rock that makes up the continents.
  • Thus at convergent boundaries, continental crust, made of granite, is created, and oceanic crust is destroyed.

Transform plate boundary

  • Two plates sliding past each other forms a transform plate boundary.
  • Natural or human-made structures that cross a transform boundary are offset—split into pieces and carried in opposite directions.
  • Rocks that line the boundary are pulverized as the plates grind along, creating a linear fault valley or undersea canyon.
  • As the plates alternately jam and jump against each other, earthquakes rattle through a wide boundary zone.
  • In contrast to convergent and divergent boundaries, no magma is formed.
  • Thus, crust is cracked and broken at transform margins, but is not created or destroyed.

Latest findings made in understanding Plate Tectonics:-

      • Axial seamount = It refers to a live recording of volcano mountain. The volcano rising from Juan de fuca ridge demonstrates it. It supports the divergent movement.
      • After 2012 Sumatra Indonesia earthquake in Indian ocean the Indo Australian plate broken into many plate. It was mainly due to slipping of plate in interpolated and hence the activation of Barren volcano happened.
      • Zealandia:-It’s a new continent. It broke from Antarctica 100 million years and from Australia 80 million yrs ago. Its formation supports movement of plates.
      • Heat from the base of the mantle contributes significantly to the strength of the flow of heat in the mantle and to the resultant plate tectonics. Buoyancy is created by heat rising up from deep within the Earth’s core.

How  plate tectonics is an improvement over continental drift theory?

  • Plate tectonic explains the mechanism of the motion of the tectonic plates while continental drift theory left this question completely unanswered.
  • Tectonic plates have been constantly moving over the globe throughout the history of the earth. It is not the continent that moves as believed by Wegener. Continents are part of a plate and what moves is the plate.
  • Wegener had thought of all the continents to have initially existed as a super continent in the form of Pangaea. However, later discoveries reveal that the continental masses, resting on the plates, have been wandering all through the geological period, and Pangaea was a result of converging of different continental masses that were parts of one or the other plates.
  • At the time that Wegener proposed his theory of continental drift, most scientists believed that the earth was a solid, motionless body. However, concepts of sea floor spreading and the unified theory of plate tectonics have emphasised that both the surface of the earth and the interior are not static and motionless but are dynamic.
    • Sea floor spreading:-
      • The mobile rock beneath the rigid plates is believed to be moving in a circular manner. The heated material rises to the surface, spreads and begins to cool, and then sinks back into deeper depths. This cycle is repeated over and over to generate what scientists call a convection cell or convective flow
    • The ultimate proof of this was the discovery of “magnetic stripes”on the seafloor later in the 1960s: the magnetic domains in oceanic rocks recorded reversal of Earth’s magnetic field over time. The pattern was symmetric to the ridge, supporting the idea of symmetric seafloor spreadingThe idea of subduction zoneswas born
    • With plate tectonics we have a theory that explains Wegener’s observations and how lithosphere can be produced and consumed so that Earth does not change its size
  • Wegener’s continental drift theory lacked was a propelling mechanism. Other scientists wanted to know what was moving these continents around. Unfortunately, Wegener could not provide a convincing answer. The technological advances necessitated by the Second World War made possible the accumulation of significant evidence now underlying modern plate tectonic theory.
  • The following two forces are too small to bring in change :-
    • Pole-fleeing or centrifugal force:
      • The spinning of Earth on its own axis creates a centrifugal force i.e. force oriented away from the axis of  rotation towards the equator. Wegener believed the centrifugal force of the planet caused the super continent to break apart and pushed continents away from the Poles toward the equator. Therefore, He called this drifting  mechanism as the “pole-fleeing or centrifugal force”
    • Tidal force:-
      • Wegener tried to attribute the westward drift of the Americas to lunar-solar drag i.e. by invoking tidal force that is the gravitational forces of the sun and the moon .He also admitted that it is probable that pole- fleeing or centrifugal force and tidal force are responsible for the journey of continents. Wegener failed to devise a sound mechanism for the movement of the continents. For Wegener the drifting mechanism was the most difficult question to solve.
    • Plate tectonics is the grand unifying theory of geosciences that explains
      • Movement of continents
      • Earthquakes, volcanism most major features on Earth’s surface, including mountain building, formation of new lithosphere ,consumption of old lithosphere, mid-ocean ridges