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Tectonics

S tudies of the structure of the earth began in Europe as part of a developing program of geology. Over time, we have
discarded multiple theories about tectonic processes, but these are presented to show the progress of geological
understanding of the Earth. This progress has come with improvement in the tools that we use and in a better grounding of
geologists in chemistry, physics and mathematics.

The major physical properties of the earth can be measured with a high degree of precision. They include:

• size – 6,378,099 meters equatorial radius


• shape – oblate spheroid, almost spherical
• mean density – 5.517 gm/cm3
• gravity – 9.8017 gm/sec2
• moment of inertia – 0.331 mr2
• magnetic field – 8.09 x 1025 emu dipole moment
• geothermal flux – 1 x 1028 erg/yr

The difference between rock densities at the surface and the total mass of the Earth is strikingly different. The average
density of the Earth is 5.5 gm/cm3, but the surface rocks have densities of only 2.7 to 3.0 gm/cm3, so densities must be
higher in the interior and the composition must change. This is confirmed by the moment of inertia since for a uniform
Earth sphere the moment should be 0.4 mr2, the difference from the measured value and the density difference between
crustal rocks and total mass all indicate that densities increase inward and that the mass is concentrated toward the center
of the Earth.

Techniques of Investigation
S eismic surveys combined with data from oil wells and the deep sea drilling program have been a powerful tool for
analysis.

Seismic Studies

S eismology is the basic tool for investigation of the interior of the Earth. Interpretation of earthquake and man-made
shock wave passage through the Earth yields the most complete and accurate data about the structure and composition
of the rocks.

The release of earthquake energy is transmitted as seismic waves which can be recorded on a seismometer. Transmission
of seismic energy through rocks is by homogeneous waves which travel equally in all directions. The main types of
seismic waves are compressional waves (P-waves) in which the particle motion is along the direction of propagation,
shear waves (S-waves) in which the particle motion is perpendicular to the direction of travel and primary waves or

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surface waves. Travel time of seismic energy is a function of the density of the rocks and their compressibility, so that
from a large number of measurements and travel time plots, the densities of rock strata can be determined.

More than 10 major earthquakes occur each year with each releasing more than a thousand times the energy of the
Hiroshima atom bomb. Data from these Earthquakes are combined with geological information about surface rock
outcrops and borehole data, laboratory experiments done on rocks at high pressures, and astronomical observations to give
us a basis for interpreting the structure and
composition of the deep interior of the Earth.

Two terms are used in discussing the location of


an earthquake. The focus is the three-
dimensional position of the source of the
earthquake, and the epicenter is the position on
the surface above the focus.

Earthquakes may be divided into groups based


on depth of occurrence:

• shallow focus – above 70 km depth


within the Earth
• intermediate – 70-300 km
• deep focus – below 300 km

The focus of deeper earthquakes is displaced toward continents and island arcs, away from trenches, marking major
underthrust fault zones – subduction zone in the plate tectonics idiom. If we map the deep and intermediate focus
earthquakes, the distribution is limited and most are in the Pacific

Seismic Surveys

S eismic reflection technique is similar


to the operation of a fathometer but
the energy is increased. When transmitted
energy strikes a plane of abrupt change in
density (layered bed boundaries or
sediment-water interface), part of the
energy is reflected. Measurement of travel
time can give the depth to the interface,
and the moving ship traces the bed
contacts as a fathometer can trace the
water-sea floor interface. An important
parameter besides intensity is the
frequency of the sound source. In general,
lower frequencies improve penetration
with loss of bed definition. Reflection profiling is used to determine structure and thickness of the sediments.

Seismic refraction surveys are similar to the study of earthquake seismic energy. The energy source is a powerful
explosion and the resulting transmission of energy through the strata is tracked to determine rock densities.

Magnetic and Gravity Surveys

M agnetism, gravity, and heat flow are properties of the Earth that can be measured at the surface. The magnetic field
is dipolar, with an axis slightly offset from the axis of rotation. The field can be defined by its strength and direction
at any point on the surface. Magnetic techniques measure the relative intensity of the field at sea with a proton precession
magnetometer.

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The magnetic field is related to Earth physics and interpretation of the magnetic history of the Earth has a profound
bearing on interpretation of the history of the crust. The field is similar to one surrounding a two-poled bar magnet
roughly aligned with the Earth's axis. The cause of the magnetic field has not been fully explained. In any theory, several
features must be explained:

• the field has two poles located near the geographic poles
• it shows irregular variations in both position and polarity
• these variations bear no relation to the crust and therefore must have their origin deep within the Earth.

The most widely accepted view is that internal electric currents produce a magnetic field much like that formed around a
wire transmitting a current. A core rich in iron and nickel would be a good electrical conductor, and a fluid outer part of
such a core would allow mechanical motion of electrical charges. According to the dynamo hypothesis, the Earth's
magnetic field results from core motions and rotation of the Earth affects both orientation and strength of the field.

Magnetic Reversals and Anomalies

W hen molten rock solidifies and cools, iron bearing minerals become oriented to the magnetic field of the Earth and
are permanent magnets reflecting the field at the time the rock formed. The orientation is imprinted with the
magnetic pattern of the Earth's field as the rock cools below 578° C (Curie point). Interpretation of remnant magnetism in
rocks that can be removed to the laboratory for measurements of direction and dip of the field are used to give long term
movements of the magnetic axis and changes in polarity. The rocks preserve a small residual field pointing in the
direction of the Earth's field at the time that they solidified. These changes are used in formulating the basic tectonic
theories of continental movement. So long as the rock is not heated above the Curie Point, the magnetism remains and can
be measured with laboratory instruments. If a carefully oriented sample is measured, we can determine the direction to the
magnetic pole, and from the magnetic dip determine the latitude at the time the rock formed.

The polarity of a magnetic field is the orientation of its positive and negative ends. Because the rocks record the
orientation, we can construct a history of the Earth's field by studying magnetic orientations in rocks from many different
ages and places. Reversals of the field can be measured by the positive-negative anomaly pattern from a magnetic survey.
When a reversal occurs, the north magnetic pole becomes the south magnetic pole and vice versa. During the past 65
million years, we have a record of about 130 reversals . These reversals give us another way to measure geological time,
with a magnetic event time scale. The north orientation is labeled normal and a time of opposite orientation (south
seeking) is called reverse.

The reversals of polarity probably result from occasional instabilities of motion within the fluid outer core. During a
reversal, the magnetic poles migrate and the strength of the field varies erratically, and it probably weakens to near zero
for brief spells. The fossil record does not show an effect on terrestrial life.

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Irregularity of the magnetic field intensity indicates that the dipole is modified by differences in permeability and
magnetization of the crustal rocks. The differences between the dipole model and the observed field are termed magnetic
anomalies. An instrument (proton precession magnatometer) that can measure the Earth's magnetic field intensity is towed
behind a ship to find submarines, ore bodies, or shipwrecks. The magnetometer measures total field intensity which is
compared to "standard" field intensity. Density variations in the rocks of the crust, masses of metal, and anything that can
affect the magnetic field will create variations that are called magnetic anomalies.

Intrusive igneous rocks, especially with a high magnetic content, increase the intensity of the field and are recorded as
areas of positive magnetic anomalies. The basement rocks are so much more magnetic than the sediments, that for
practical purposes, we assume that the magnetometer is reading basement rock magnetism and shows either concentration
of magnetic material or nearness to the surface when positive anomalies are encountered. Concentration of low magnetic
materials, such a halite beds and diapirs will give low readings. The anomalies are mapped for mineral exploration and to
interpret geological structures.

The field intensity is also affected by the polarity recorded in the basalts of the ocean floor, and magnetic intensity surveys
across the Atlantic oceanic ridge led to discovery of a pattern of positive and negative magnetic anomalies. These were a
major factor in development of the theory of sea floor spreading and the successor theory of plate tectonics.

Gravity Anomalies

T he force of gravity varies over the Earth with variations from the spherical shape, and with elevation of the surface.
Variations are also caused by density inhomogeneities in the crustal rocks. These are the variations that we look for
with a gravitometer - a delicate balance for measuring differences in mass attraction.

The gravity field results from the distribution of mass within the Earth, and anomalies from the theoretical model provide
data for interpretation of the underlying density structure. The major gravity component is the attraction between the Earth
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and a body at the surface - the force of gravity is directed toward the center and perpendicular to its surface, which is an
equipotential surface. These values are affected by elevation, so measurements are corrected for altitude and the material
between the measuring station and the geoid. Differences measured after corrections - gravity anomalies - are caused by
the buried rocks of different density, or by geological structures.

Gravity data indicate that the


continental and oceanic blocks
are in mass balance (isostatic
equilibrium). By visualizing the
rocks of the crust and ocean as
floating on the denser rock of the
upper mantle (average density
3.4 gm/cm3), it is easier to
understand how the continents
maintain their attitude above the
oceans by isostatic adjustment.
When an area is loaded or
unloaded, vertical movements
occur. A given block of crust
elevated or depressed by tectonic forces is out of balance and tends to return to isostatic balance once the forces cease to
act on it. While out of balance, the block is marked by gravity anomalies.

Some important conclusions are obtained by simple qualitative studies.

• The lack of systematic differences in gravity anomalies between oceans and continents shows that the deficit in
mass due to the water in the oceans is compensated by material of higher density in the oceanic crust.
• Large negative anomalies associated with deep-sea trenches are associated with corresponding deficiencies of
mass and indicate active forces sufficient to overcome isostatic adjustment.

Interpretation and determination of crustal structure from gravity data is not simple. The same gravity distribution can be
attributed to many different mass distributions and development of a definitive model from gravity data alone is
questionable. Gravity measurements are combined with seismic and magnetic surveys, and the underlying structure
determined from a synthesis of the data.

Heat Flow

T he measurement of heat flow records the amount of heat emerging from the Earth's interior. The rate of heat loss from
the Earth is about 2.4 x 1020 calories per year. A condition of thermal equilibrium exists at the ocean bottom in deep
water, allowing fairly simple measurement with probes on sediment coring devices. On land, thermal equilibrium is
difficult to achieve, and measurement is difficult and restricted to mines and boreholes where sufficient time and
conditions allow the development of an equilibrium state.

We can assume that at one stage in its origin, the Earth was hot
with temperatures in the interior on the order of 3000° C and that
it has been cooling since, with turbulent convective transfer of
energy. Radiogenic and gravitational energy have contributed to
the heat budget, but most of the available heat came from the
Earth's planetary origin. The rate of loss by convection has been
damped by the upper mantle and crustal layers in which viscosity
is high enough to give a thick layer dominated by the slower
process of conduction loss.

The available heat flow data gives correlation with tectonic environments. There is low and uniform heat flow for shield
and non-orogenic or older orogenic zones. Cenozoic orogenic areas have higher heat flow. Oceanic areas have low and

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uniform values of flow except for the crests of oceanic rises, where high heat flow occurs. In island arcs, higher heat flow
is associated with zones of intermediate and deep earthquakes.

Ocean Drilling

T he first scientific drilling operations in the deep sea began in 1961 in 945 m water depth off southern California,
drilling 1,315 m into the sea floor. Immediately, a second site in 3,558 m of water, known as the Experimental
Mohole, was drilled off Baha California. This hole penetrated 183 m of sediment and 13 m of basalt, failing to reach the
Mohole but demonstrating the feasibility of recovering scientifically valuable cores at depths well beyond the reach of the
piston corer.

In 1964, four United States oceanographic institutions joined together as JOIDES, Joint Oceanographic Institutions for
Deep Earth Sampling, proposing that the U. S. National Science Foundation (NSF) support drilling off Jacksonville,
Florida. Six sites were continuously cored to sub-bottom depths of more than 1 km, revealing significant oceanographic
changes on the east Florida margin since the Late Cretaceous. Well preserved planktic and benthic microfossils from the
cores were instrumental in developing the biostratigraphic zonation schemes used today.

JOIDES then initiated the Deep Sea Drilling


Project (DSDP), which originally proposed
18-months of ocean drilling in the Atlantic
and Pacific Oceans. The NSF funded
modification of a drilling vessel under
construction; it was modified specifically for
scientific ocean drilling, core recovery and
analysis. The resulting Glomar Challenger
spent 15 years drilling the ocean basins and
providing geologic data to solidify the theory
of plate tectonics, to develop the discipline of
paleoceanography, and to greatly advance
scientific understanding of Earth history and
processes.

In the 1970's, other U.S. and international


institutions joined JOIDES. In 1985, the
Ocean Drilling Project (ODP) succeeded
DSDP with dedication of a larger, more sophisticated drillship, the JOIDES Resolution. The ODP continues past its
original 10-year mission. The scientific discoveries of DSDP and ODP have affected everything from oil and mineral
exploration to predicting earthquakes and global-climate fluctuations. Yet those discoveries would not have been possible
without such astonishing engineering feats as hole re-entry cones, advanced piston corers, and stabilization techniques that
allow drilling in stormy Antarctic seas, which is further testimony to the interdisciplinary nature of the Earth sciences.
Furthermore, these discoveries would not have been possible if the United States, Germany, France, Canada, Japan, the
United Kingdom, and the European Science Foundation had not dedicated the monetary resources needed to undertake
this level of scientific research.

Interior of the Earth


T he interior of the Earth is not accessible beyond about 10 kilometers, so the internal structure is inferred from indirect
evidence.

Seismic Discontinuities

O ver the past 200 years, geologists have accumulated an impressive set of data describing the structure and
morphology of the continents. In this century, we have learned much more about the features of the sea floor, and in
the last half of this century, we have developed a unifying theory describing the tectonics that produced these features.
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The natural sequence is to describe the tectonic processes in the ocean basins that form the features, the modification by
erosion and deposition and finally the description of the geomorphic forms moving from ocean to land.

The surface of the Earth is a complex result of internal forces, the materials of construction and the physical processes
acting on the surface. The basic division into continents and ocean basins results from the difference in composition of the
oceanic crust and the continental crust - the rocks of the upper 5 to 70 km of the earth. The theory of plate tectonics
provides a framework for understanding the forces acting on the Earth's crust, and the resultant surface features.

The solid earth is divided into three principal units:

• Core
• Mantle
• Crust

The composition and structure of the Earth has been deduced from seismic data and study of the solar system. The basic
structure of the earth is a layered globe with increasing density of material inward. The core of the earth is composed of an
inner solid core, and an outer liquid core. The next layer is the mantle, which forms most of the earth.

The crust is that part of the Earth from the surface to less than 70 km inward. The base of the crust is marked by a seismic
event called the Mohorovicic Discontinuity (Moho). Seismic data show a number of discontinuities in seismic wave
propagation in the Earth's interior which occur when abrupt changes in rock density are encountered and the seismic
waves are reflected and refracted.

Studies of the topography, crustal thickness, and seismic wave transmission indicate that the crust is part of a rigid plate
about 100 km thick (lithosphere) that includes the upper part of the mantle. This lies above a plastic or more fluid zone of
the mantle called the asthenosphere. This is a low velocity zone to seismic wave transmission.

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Although the crust has igneous,
sedimentary, and metamorphic
rocks, more than 95 percent of
the rock is igneous. The crust is
not a layer of uniform thickness,
but is characterized by
irregularity. Basically, it is
thinnest beneath the oceans and
thickest under continents.

Crustal Units

C rustal rocks are divided into


granitic type continental
crust (average density 2.8
gm/cm3 and basaltic type oceanic
crust (average 3.0 gm/cm3). The
continental granitic crust is 50 to
70 km thick, compared to about
five to ten km for the oceanic
crust. The difference in density between the two types of crust results in a physiographic difference in elevation of the
ocean basins and the continents. If we average the elevations of individual kilometer squares of the earth's surface and
construct a curve of percentage of elevation, two dominant levels emerge. These correspond to the average continental
platform and the ocean floor, with the boundary between them being the continental slope; extreme highs and lows are the
mountains and ocean trenches.

Oceanic crust is remarkably similar in all oceans. Three layers have been measured in the ocean crust:

• Layer 1 is 0.1 to 1.0 kilometers of


unconsolidated sediments.
• The second layer varies in thickness and is
difficult to detect if it is thin. It averages 1.7
km in thickness and is generally assumed to be
basaltic material. This layer can be traced into
the abyssal hills.
• Layer 3 is called the oceanic layer, and it
typifies the oceanic crust. The average
thickness is 4.9 kilometers.

The widespread occurrence of layer 3 and the


remarkable velocity stability in widely different parts
of the ocean show that it is a characteristic feature of
oceanic crust. The velocity measurements put it in a
composition range of gabbro, basalts and similar
materials. This composition has been confirmed by
drill cores. The uniformity throughout the world
indicates similar material underlying all oceans.

On the assumption of spreading seafloor and renewal of the oceans, a model of composition of the layers can be made. At
the mid-ocean ridge, splitting and spreading of the central rift valley occurs in response to rising convection in the mantle.
Molten rock wells up through the fissures and forms rounded masses of pillow lava on the valley floor. The lava cools and
solidifies to form a linear wall of volcanic basalt. The next split forms on the same line and forces the previous dike apart
so that another feeder of magma is injected along the axis of the previous mass. These volcanic basalts form the oceanic
crust. In time, layer 1 sediments are deposited over this material.
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The immediate supply of magma does not come directly from the asthenosphere but is from an intermediate chamber
within the oceanic crust itself, which is refueled from the inner mantle. As plates move apart, the chamber walls are
carried sideways and molten rock solidifies against the walls as they cool. Since these cool slowly, they form the coarsely
crystalline rocks such as gabbros and peridotites.

The crust is probably derived from the denser mantle of the earth. As the mantle differentiated, relatively light silicon,
oxygen, aluminum, potassium, sodium, calcium, carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, helium, and lesser amounts of other elements
rose to the surface to form the crust, seawater, and atmosphere. For oceanic crust, the melting of upper mantle material
and extrusion at the surface of the resulting magma seems straightforward.

Continental crust origin has been more complex. Continental crust did not evolve in a stable form until about 3.9 to 4.1
billion years before the present. The oldest rocks dated are from northwestern Canada with ages about 3.8 to 3.9 billion
years old. However detrital zircons found in younger rocks in Australia have been dated at 4.1 to 4.2 billion years. Only
when the heat from radioactivity and meteorite impacts declined to the point where large chunks of crustal rock could be
preserved did we develop a stable continental crust.

Mantle Convection

C onvection in the mantle is believed to be the fundamental process responsible for tectonic motion, but hot spot plumes
discussed next, may also have a role. The convection may be within the mantle and carry the plates on a conveyor
belt. In the conveyor belt model, the rising limbs of the convecting cells in the mantle determine the positions of oceanic
ridges. The convecting mantle would cause the lithosphere to split, and the moving mantle would carry the lithosphere
laterally toward the subduction zone. The descending cell would mark the location of the trench and would drag the
lithosphere down into the mantle. Movements in the asthenosphere are thought to be strongly coupled to the lithosphere.

The size and shape of the convection cells within the mantle are also a matter of debate. The principle models are:

• layered mantle convection, and


• whole mantle convection.

In the first model, two separate convecting layers of mantle are envisioned. The upper layer is confined largely to the
asthenosphere and lithosphere. Slabs of lithosphere are known to penetrate to depths of 700 km before becoming
undetectable by their seismic activity, so a significant part of the upper mantle must be involved in convection. Below 700
km, the mantle is thought to convect independently of the upper mantle and probably at a very slow rate.

The second model considers convection to involve the entire mantle. Heat for whole mantle convection is supplied from
the outer core. The major difference in these models is the size of the convection cells. Another variety of mantle
convection involves the rise of jet-like plumes of low-density material from the core-mantle boundary region.

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Tectonics
W idespread acceptance of the plate tectonics model of the Earth has overshadowed earlier theories, but in the
following section we will look at earlier concepts of a mobile Earth. The theories of continental drift and sea floor
spreading have been abandoned in favor of plate tectonics, but an examination of their concepts helps us see the
development of the modern plate tectonic theory.

Development of Concepts

D eformation of rocks and mountain building episodes were recognized early in the developing science of geology.
Early concepts and efforts to find underlying causes looked at many possible mechanisms. The extensive
compression shown by the major mountain ranges were attributed to a shrinking earth in which a wrinkled and contracted
outer skin resulted in compressive mountains. We were a long way from knowing what lay under the oceans.

Early theories envisioned a stable configuration of oceans and continents and were based on the geology of the continental
masses. They did contribute the concept of convection cells within the earth which has carried into modern theory as a
mechanism of movement. Although stable continent theories are gone, some of the mechanisms are valid as overprints to
a Plate Tectonic Theory.

Continental Drift and a World Adrift

I n 1912, Alfred Wegner proposed that the


present distribution of the continents resulted
from fragmentation of an original land mass,
followed by the new continents moving further
apart. Although he was not the first to suggest
this, the concept was developed and spread
under his influence. The general similarity of
the Atlantic coastlines led to the idea that the
Atlantic was an immense rift left behind by
spreading continents and filled with magma
from below. The mechanism of drift was
ascribed to tidal forces and Coriolis
acceleration.

The jigsaw puzzle fit of the two sides was interesting, but more solid lines of evidence were marshaled to fit the criteria:

• If two separate continents were once united, it should be possible to recognize common features.
• If the continents were in different positions on the earth's surface at an earlier date, then climatic zones should
have changed in time.

Series of correspondences were found in the


sediments, fossils, climate, earth movements, and
igneous rock formations on opposite sides of the
Atlantic Ocean. Similarities of geological history and
tectonic structures supported the concept. However,
every evidence presented was matched with counter
arguments, giving viable alternate explanations.

Since the theory of continental drift supposes that the


positions of the continents relative to one another and
their relationship to the axis of rotation of the earth
have changed in time, a method that will fix the geographic position of sites within the continents in relation to the polar
axis during the geological past will disclose whether motion has taken place since that time. This is provided by the
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measurement of paleomagnetism. If rock age and paleomagnetic orientation are determined, we can obtain pole positions
for various geological ages which can be plotted for the rocks of a continent. These show a grouping for a particular age
and a serial progression with time. This is an indication that the phenomenon is not local, and that major displacements of
the crust relative to the pole have occurred. This may be explained by:

• expansion of the Earth


• change in the axis of rotation
• polar wandering
• continental drift -- or other mobile continent models

Another possibility is questioning of the data -- whether the data are statistically valid and a true representation of what
transpired. The major trends show sufficient consistency to make error in the main conclusion unlikely. The crux of the
matter is whether there are explanations of the discrepancies between polar wandering curves which do not require the
hypothesis of horizontal continental displacement.

Expansion or contraction of the earth does not fit our knowledge of earth physics and geological history. Polar wandering
(slippage of the crust as a single unit) is possible, but it does not fit the paleomagnetic data which show divergence in the
polar wandering paths for different continents. When the paths are plotted for pole position using data from North
America and Europe, there is a discrepancy and divergence of paths that is too great to attribute to errors in measurement.
This divergence is also an argument against expansion or change in the axis of rotation.

By the time of the annual meeting of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists in 1928, opponents had
marshaled heavy arguments against the idea of continental drift. The most telling flaw was failure to propose a mechanism
whereby continental crustal blocks would move through a basaltic ocean crust. A simple change in concept --sea floor
spreading-- solved this, but first we went through a world war and about 30 years of theories replacing drifting continents.

Convection currents (theory) in the earth's mantle led to several theories of compressive force origin. The rise of ocean
surveys following W.W.II revised a concept of pull-apart tectonics and earth expansion. Convective processes were joined
to hot radioactive decay areas in the earth in other concepts.

Similarities of flora, fauna, structures, glaciation, and other lines of evidence for continental drift can be explained by
other means, but taken together with the paleomagnetic data, there is support for the concept of mobile continents.

A spreading sea floor model solved some of the problems of the continental drift idea. Thermal convection circulation in
the earth's mantle provides a mechanism for lateral crustal movement. Short term stresses may produce rupture of rocks,
but when subjected to shearing stress over periods of millions of years, the mantle and crust can behave plastically.
Although the evidence for convection currents is indirect, their reality is strongly suggested by an increasing body of
independent observations.

A heavy influx of ocean basin data and a marriage of geology and geophysics led to a new approach to tectonics and Earth
movements, the world of sea floor spreading. This was refined and revised into a plate tectonics theory and major
geological wars were resolved by peace.

Sea-Floor Spreading

Convection theory and a new and different set of data led to the construction of a reasonable theory, sea floor spreading,
to describe the evolution of ocean basins in a pattern that would fit the data. The sea-floor (oceanic crust) was assumed to
be a hydrated form of mantle material. The major features of the sea floor were described as a direct result of a spreading
and renewal of the sea floor crust by convective processes. The oceanic crust was assumed to be coupled to the convecting
mantle material therefore moving with it. The continental crust was carried passively with the oceanic crust to areas of
convergence where it is stabilized above the downward moving oceanic crust and mantle material. The oceanic rises mark
divergence and sites of rising convection cells; oceanic trenches mark convergence and descending crust in this theory.

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Magnetic surveys across the oceanic rises show a striped pattern of negative and positive anomaly bands. This pattern has
been interpreted as being related to reversals of the earth's magnetic field in the geological past. It was suggested that the
anomalies could be caused by stripes of the ocean floor that were alternately magnetized normally and reversed -- thus
enforcing or reducing the field. If the stripes represent rock that welled up along a spreading axis during successive
periods when the earth's field was "normal" or "reversed", we have a spreading ocean floor acting like an immense
magnetic tape recorder. As the earth's magnetic field changed with time, its direction became frozen in the newest lavas
being formed. The whole sea floor slowly moved from the spreading center carrying its signature. Spreading from a
central axis should produce bilateral symmetry and the anomaly record would match itself when reversed.

The Moho is not found beneath the oceanic rises and seismic velocities are lower, which can be explained by the higher
temperatures, fracturing of the material, and the convective
process. If the rate of movement is several centimeters per
year, the floors of the oceans would be renewed every 200 to
300 million years, and the young sea floors would account for
the relatively thin sediment cover. There would be a process of
progressive overlap toward the rise as the ocean crust migrated,
and this has been confirmed by drilling into the sea floor.

Two features of the sea floor spreading concept are unique


from the other theories. The oceanic crust was not conceived as
a separate layer so much as it was thought to be the exposed
mantle surface -- the upper part of a convection cell whose
properties were modified by serpentinization. The continental
borders were sites of ocean crust-mantle movement downward
and therefore of compressive shear between continental and
oceanic crust.

Trenches and earthquake activity fit this concept, but not the
eastern margin of the Americas and the western Europe-Africa
margin, and this led to a new theory.

Plate Tectonics
T he sea floor spreading concept was replaced with the plate
tectonics model. The theory of plate tectonics is a
modification and reformulation that has utilized the concept of
sea floor spreading but instituted changes in concept of the processes and interactions of blocks of the earth to fit the
available data better. The theory holds that the Earth is divided into eight major plates (and about 20 minor) or spherical
slabs of crust and mantle about 100 km thick that ride and move over a weak asthenosphere zone in the mantle. The
margins are divergent or convergent zones. In the convergences, there is a subduction or collision of two plates. All of the
major plates except the Pacific contain an embedded continent by which they are identified.

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The rocks of the ocean floor differ from the continental crust in both composition and age. Continental rocks have been
dated as old as 3.5 billion years and ages of 1.5 billion are not uncommon. In contrast, the oldest ocean floor material is
less than 200 million years old and the rocks of the oceanic rises are younger. This startling data is explained by the
spreading sea floor and plate tectonics concepts.

Oceanic crust is formed continuously from intrusion of


mantle materials at the oceanic rises creating new, young
ocean floor. As the plates move apart, the inflow of
molten lava forms new basaltic sea floor. The other
sides of the plate are shear fault zones of
transcurrent and transform faulting. The older
oceanic crust is drawn downward with the upper
mantle as the lithosphere subducts in the deep
ocean trench regions. This does not happen with
the continental crust. Because of its lower density,
it rides upward and the continents are
progressively built up while the ocean floor is
always in the process of being renewed and
destroyed.

The features and changes in the Earth that were


proposed by adherents of continental drift and
spreading sea floor are part of the plate tectonics
theory -- the changes are in the mechanisms,
plate definition and the boundaries, and the
lithosphere concept. The driving force is still
convection current circulation, but additional
thought has been given as to how the plates are
moved.

About 200 million years ago, the continental


land masses were joined as one major continent.
There were movements prior to this which can be traced, but because of limited outcrops, the records are incomplete. The
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convergent movement is reflected in the record of major mountain building. The latest episode of plate movement resulted
in the spreading apart of the continents to their present position -- a movement that is still in progress. We know that the
changes in movement patterns occurred, but do not know the causes.

If we use the 1000 meter contour on the continental slope to define the edges of the continental blocks, there is an
extraordinary fit of South American to Africa and North America to Eurasia, India, Australia, and Antarctica fit to show
the form of Pangaea. This fit is reinforced by using paleomagnetic data in the reconstruction, and we can see the fit of
tectonic and stratigraphic trends that are older than 200 million years.

The origin of today's oceans lies in the pattern of breakup and movement of the plates. Since the movements create strains
and release at the boundaries, the plate boundaries are marked by earthquake activity. Earthquake distribution is not
random and the zones of activity extending through the Mediterranean, Middle East, Northern India, around the Pacific,
and along the ocean rises mark principal plate boundaries.

Differences in earthquake focus and intensity allow us to distinguish different types of boundaries. Under the median
valley of the ocean rise where the plates diverge, earthquakes are relatively shallow and because of less crustal rigidity
and states of tension, are of relatively low intensity. Where the plates slide past one another along transform faults -- as on
the north coast of Turkey -- and the ocean rise offsets, the earthquakes are shallow to intermediate depths. On the rises,
the intensities are not severe, but where the trace cuts through continental edges, major earthquakes can occur.
Intermediate and deep focus earthquakes are restricted to convergent boundaries where subduction occurs.

• The Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, and the Indian Ocean are new ocean basins.
• The Mediterranean Sea is a remnant of the Tethys Sea and is still undergoing closure.
• The Pacific Ocean is bounded by subduction zones and it is closing as the Atlantic grows.
• The oldest oceanic crust is found in the northwestern corner of the Pacific because it is an ocean where crust has
been destroyed while new crust was forming in the other oceans.
• The Americas have drifted west, while those continents around the Indian Ocean have moved north.
• Antarctica has remained almost stationary, as has Eurasia, but Eurasia is undergoing clockwise rotation in which
Europe has moved north and China southward.
• The last major event in this movement was the detachment of Australia from Antarctica in the Eocene - about 55
million years ago.

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Divergent Boundaries

D ivergent plate boundaries are axes of spreading where a plate splits and is pulled apart. These boundaries are uplifted
by upwelling heat and characterized by tensional stresses that produce block faulting, fractures and open fissures.
Basaltic magma derived from partial melting of the mantle is injected into the fissures and extruded to form new seafloor.

The initial rift zone in the disruption of a continent is marked by an


introduction of oceanic crust between continental (forming the
Atlantic Ocean) or oceanic crust blocks and a general uplift. These
crustal boundaries are passive margins and tectonic activity is minor
once separation is achieved.

At the present time, East Africa is bowed upward in a broad arch


which is splitting at the crest, forming a linear rift valley marked by
volcanic activity and the formation of pillow lava. This is a first step
in the divergent boundary.

As the process continues, the rift floor will sink and oceanic crust will
grow. There is already oceanic crust in the Afar region of the African
rift valley. As the margins spread, the flow will cool and subside,
forming an oceanic area like the Red Sea. The passive margins are
relatively free of mountain chains and tectonic activity since they lie
within a plate.

The ocean rise looks like a sinuous


mountain chain some 1000 km
wide. The axis has straight
crestal/median valley segments
that are cut and offset by transform
faults normal to the median valley. This pattern results from the spreading process which adapts itself to the shapes of the
retreating continents. Rifting of the median valley is related to the rising convection cell. The warmer convecting mantle
creates a zone of upward pressure which forces the walls of the crest upward and outward and linear fissures allow lava
flow which erupts to form small hills of pillow lava.

In the crust below the eruption, the magma cools, forming a dike of volcanic
rock (basalt). The next split pulls the dike apart and more magma is injected
along the axis of the previous dike. Each of these injected dikes is given a
magnetic polarity signature as it cools. Each successive injection adds
younger material as the older dikes are carried away from the injection axis.

The immediate magma source is an intermediate chamber within the oceanic


crust along the axis. This chamber is refueled from within the inner mantle.
As the plates move apart, the chamber walls are carried sideways and molten
rock solidifies against the walls. These plutonic bodies cool slowly forming
coarse grained basic igneous rocks.

Transform Boundaries

T he oceanic ridge is broken into segments as the crust moves along


numerous shear fault lines normal to the axis (at 2 to 10 cm/yr). This
movement produces shallow earthquakes. Beyond the offset area, the two
sides move together and fault shear becomes negligible.

The fault has movement at the middle, but not the ends, and an opposite sense
of direction of faulting on either side of the center – these are the
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characteristics of a transform fault. These faults are by definition restricted to areas of lateral spreading.
Transform faults may also form boundaries where plates are offset by major lateral movement.

Convergent Boundaries

P late convergences, where plates collide, are tectonically active with complicated geological processes, including
igneous activity, crustal deformation, and mountain building (orogeny). The collision and subduction of plates may
follow many patterns, but several basic responses can be related to modern tectonic situations.

Oceanic crust meets oceanic crust in the Pacific and it seems to be a matter of chance as to which plate is subducted.
Along the Tonga-Kermadec Trench, the Pacific plate moves under the Indo-Australian lithosphere but in the nearby
Solomon basin along the same plate boundary, the Indo-Australian plate is subducting. At both sites, chains of volcanic
islands form above the descending plate and the subduction zone is marked by earthquakes.

When oceanic crust meets continental crust, the oceanic plate subducts. As the Nacza plate moves under South America,
earthquakes and volcanic activity are associated with the Andes. Subduction destroys oceanic crust and reduces the
oceanic area.

The Marianas Trench is separated from Asia by the


Philippine Sea which is a case of oceanic crust
colliding with a marginal sea bordering a
continent. Upwelling magma from the
subducting oceanic crust is trapped
between Asia and the Pacific. The
marginal back-arc sea floor is active
and local spreading centers force
the crust toward the Pacific plate.

A final ocean extinction occurs


when continental blocks meet in
collision. The collision of India
and Asia 30 million years ago
uplifted continental areas into the
Himalayas and the approach of
Africa to Europe will soon (less
than 50 million years) eliminate the Mediterranean, Baltic, and Black Seas and then form another great mountain chain.

When two plates collide in a zone of convergence and one plate (oceanic) passes under the other, a layer of sedimentary
rock on the oceanic plate is scraped off and accumulates as an island arc or against a continental margin as exotic terrain.
The lithosphere (oceanic crust - upper mantle) slab of some 100 km thickness subducts at an angle of some 30 degrees
with melting of the surface due to friction and pressure. At depths of 100 to 300 km (asthenosphere layer), the lighter
molten rocks force their way upward behind the subduction zone, forming a volcanic chain. The slab of subducted
lithosphere moves downward, causing earthquakes until it finally breaks up at a depth of about 700 km. This whole
sloping surface is an area of shallow to deep earthquake activity of major intensity.

Hot Spots
H ot spots are a form of intraplate volcanism. Isolated hot-spot volcanoes result from the presence of mantle plumes –
columns of magma rising in the upper mantle. If the overlying plate is weak, some of the magma breaks through to
form a volcano. Composition of the material in the eruption depends on the composition of the plate through which the
magma rises; along with the composition of the magma source in the mantle. From studies of hotspots, the basalt is
different from the basalt that forms from the upper mantle at spreading centers.

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The idea of hotspots was established in 1963 from observations concerning the geology of the Hawaiian Islands. It was
known that the Islands are progressively older from the southeastern most island of Hawaii to the northwest. Mantle
plumes (which are models and theories that have been postulated from indirect evidence) are columns of molten or hot
rock that originate deep inside Earth's mantle and rise slowly toward the surface, lifting the crust and forming volcanoes.

They may consist of hot mantle material rising as blobs rather than in a continuous column. They are thought of as having
diameters of 100-200 km and rising at rates of perhaps 2 m per year. They have a variety of shapes and sizes, and they
originate at various depths between 700 km and the core mantle boundary (2900 km). Melting occurs as the pressure
drops when the material rises toward the surface. Their position appears to be relatively stationary, so the lithospheric
plates drift over them. The plumes are therefore independent of the major tectonic elements of the crust and they rise up
under continents and ocean plates alike.

The plumes may form over regions of locally high


concentrations of radioactive elements in the
mantle (heat producing) or rise over anomalies in
the outer core. Mantle plumes appear to be
temporary features that form and ultimately
fade and die with a typical life span on the
order of 100 million years.

Bathymetric data in the Pacific Ocean show


an L-shaped chain of volcanic islands and
submerged volcanoes (the Emperor-
Hawaiian chain) that show a progression of
ages when dated radiometrically. Dates run
from 75 million years at the northwestern
end of the chain to 40 million years at the
bend, and still active volcanoes in Hawaii .
From the distance and orientation, the
direction of plate movement and rate can be
determined.

Hot spots occur under continents as well as


beneath ocean basins. They are more easily detected in the oceans, perhaps because the magmas can more readily work
their way up through the thinner oceanic lithosphere. The use of hot spots to mark plate motion depends upon a
presumption that movement of the hot spots is slight. Other lines of study of plate motion and position of hot spots
indicate that the hot spots do move, but this movement is very slow in relation to the movement of plates.

A high concentration of hot spots is found in the African plate. Africa has apparently come to rest over a concentration of
hot spots. This has developed uplift and a unique topography. Other plates (Antarctica, China, southeast Asia) which are
moving slowly, have higher numbers of hot spots. In rapidly moving plates such as the North and South American plates,
hot spots are rare.

Hot spots not only mark the movement of plates, but they may also play a part in the movement of plates. When a
continent comes to rest, the dome that swells up over a hot spot is subject to fracturing and producing a three-armed rift.
These may initiate a zone of divergence. Typically, two arms of the rift open to form an ocean basin and the third arm
fails and remains as a fissure in the continental landmass. By restoring the margins of the Atlantic Ocean to their Pangaea
position, an abundance of three-armed rifts are revealed. The successful arms merged to form the mid ocean spreading
zone and the unsuccessful ones remained as rifts extending into the continents.

Patterns of Plate Movement


M ost of the literature discusses the last 200 million years of plate movement that changed the worlds continents from
a single land mass to the present configuration. We will discuss this, but also go back in time to describe some of

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the earlier movements. In geology, the farther back we go, less information is available. Rock outcrops become scarce,
fossils non-existent, and the rocks have been intensely folded and distorted, losing much of the original character.

The continents are composed of lighter silicic material that rides passively on the moving plates. Except for the small
amount of continentally derived sediment subducted back into the mantle, the less dense material is so buoyant that it
cannot sink into the denser mantle material below. The continents move with the plates, sometimes colliding and
sometimes splitting. They are much older than the ocean basins. Because continents are not consumed back into the
mantle, they preserve records of plate movements in the early history of Earth – records in the form of ancient faults, old
mountain belts, granitic batholiths, and sediments deposited along ancient continental margins.

Ordovician mountain building resulted from the conversion of an Early Ordovician passive margin to a mid-Ordovician
active margin by collision with a volcanic arc or microcontinent. The plate tectonic interpretation of similarities of
mountains in North America and Europe suggests that they were
separated until mid-Paleozoic time.

During the Ordovician and Silurian periods, these two continents and
several microcontinents were moving toward each other as the
intervening ocean was being consumed by subduction on both sides.
This pattern of assembly explains the exotic terranes that have been
identified in the Appalachian region of North America.

The land masses and microcontinents were fused together by


continental collision mountain-building in Devonian time. The late
Paleozoic was dominated by the collision of various continents to
form the supercontinent of Pangaea. In the Pennsylvanian and
Permian, the eastern and southern margins of North America collided
with Africa and South America, producing a mountain belt from the
Appalachians to the southern Rocky Mountains. By Permian time,
the supercontinent was fully assembled and uplifted with marine
seaways disappearing from the continental interiors. The end of the
Paleozoic was a time of unusually widespread mountain building
from the continental collisions.

The Mesozoic brought the tectonic effects of the breakup of Pangaea. In eastern North America, the Atlantic Ocean began
opening forming Triassic rift grabens. As the Atlantic opened and the North American plate moved westward over the
Pacific, major subduction occurred on the western margin which included terrane collision.

By the Jurassic, a volcanic arc complex had developed along the western margin, and exotic terranes continued to be
accreted to the western margin. The speed of spreading in the Atlantic produced high ocean ridges that caused sea level
rise and shallow sea invasion of continental blocks.

Summary
N umerous lines of data and evidence lend support to the concept of a mobile lithosphere. Single items or several, and
indeed all of the points can be refuted or explained in other ways. However, as in a job of police detection, it is the
fact of accordance and the weight of the evidence as each bit adds more support which gives credence to the theory of
plate tectonics. As presented, the plate tectonics concept makes a neat package, providing a framework for interpreting
geological processes that works.

The basic movements of lithospheric plates and tectonic features resulting from the movement have been described in
detail, but no explanation has been given for epirogenic events in the platforms, block faulting, and other non-marginal
features. Geologists have described regularities and cyclic events in the history of the earth, and the concept of plate
tectonics may be a random, incidental occurrence of tectonic activity. There is an inherent limitation of application of
plate tectonics that is neglected by its adherents. Processes within the earth may generate various modes of tectonic
behavior – one of which is the plate response. An unfortunate tendency has been selectivity in choice of data used,
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attributing all features to drift patterns, to base broad interpretations on limited data, and worst of all, to be woefully
ignorant of basic geological knowledge in many of the model areas.

Plate movement in time - images generated with http://www.odsn.de/odsn/services/paleomap/paleomap.html program.

Plate tectonics is not an answer to all problems, but it is accepted as the major tectonic process shaping the earth. The
lithosphere – asthenosphere and mantle convection are accepted models. If mantle convection and a rising column –
divergence occurs – this could drive a spreading sea floor plate tectonics system – it could also lead to uplift and
epirogenic movements, block faulting, etc., without rifting and sea floor generation. An uplifted oceanic rise can be driven
as described in the plate tectonics model, or may slide by gravity tectonics. The structural patterns are not completely
answered and at its present stage, plate tectonics is a working hypothesis. It may be the answer, or part of the answer
working in conjunction with other processes. The best approach is an open mind.

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