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WhatIsPlateTectonics?

Tectonic plates of the Earth.


Credit: USGS

From the deepest ocean trench to the tallest mountain, plate tectonics explains the features and movement of
Earth's surface in the present and the past.

Plate tectonics is the theory that Earth's outer shell is divided into several plates that glide over the mantle, the
rocky inner layer above the core. The plates act like a hard and rigid shell compared to Earth's mantle. This
strong outer layer is called the lithosphere, which is 100 km (60 miles) thick, according to Encyclopedia
Britannica. The lithosphere includes the crust and outer part of the mantle. Below the lithosphere is the
asthenosphere, which is malleable or partially malleable, allowing the lithosphere to move around. How it
moves around is an evolving idea.
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History
Developed from the 1950s through the 1970s, plate tectonics is the modern version of continental drift, a theory
first proposed by scientist Alfred Wegener in 1912. Wegener didn't have an explanation for how continents
could move around the planet, but researchers do now. Plate tectonics is the unifying theory of geology, said
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Nicholas van der Elst, a seismologist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades,
New York.

"Before plate tectonics, people had to come up with explanations of the geologic features in their region that
were unique to that particular region," Van der Elst said. "Plate tectonics unified all these descriptions and said
that you should be able to describe all geologic features as though driven by the relative motion of these
tectonic plates."

How many plates are there?


There are nine major plates, according to World Atlas. These plates are named after the landforms found on
them. The nine major plates are North American, Pacific, Eurasian, African, Indo-Australian, Australian,
Indian, South American and Antarctic.
The largest plate is the Pacific Plate at 39,768,522 square miles (103,000,000 square kilometers). Most of it is
located under the ocean. It is moving northwest at a speed of around 2.75 inches (7 cm) per year.

There are also many smaller plates throughout the world.

How plate tectonics works


The driving force behind plate tectonics is convection in the mantle. Hot material near the Earth's core rises, and
colder mantle rock sinks. "It's kind of like a pot boiling on a stove," Van der Elst said. The convection drive
plates tectonics through a combination of pushing and spreading apart at mid-ocean ridges and pulling and
sinking downward at subduction zones, researchers think. Scientists continue to study and debate the
mechanisms that move the plates.
Mid-ocean ridges are gaps between tectonic plates that mantle the Earth like seams on a baseball. Hot magma
wells up at the ridges, forming new ocean crust and shoving the plates apart. At subduction zones, two tectonic
plates meet and one slides beneath the other back into the mantle, the layer underneath the crust. The cold,
sinking plate pulls the crust behind it downward.

Many spectacular volcanoes are found along subduction zones, such as the "Ring of Fire" that surrounds the
Pacific Ocean.

Plate boundaries
Subduction zones, or convergent margins, are one of the three types of plate boundaries. The others are
divergent and transform margins.

At a divergent margin, two plates are spreading apart, as at seafloor-spreading ridges or continental rift zones
such as the East Africa Rift.

Transform margins mark slip-sliding plates, such as California's San Andreas Fault, where the North America
and Pacific plates grind past each other with a mostly horizontal motion.

Reconstructing the past

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While the Earth is 4.54 billion years old, because oceanic crust is constantly recycled at subduction zones, the
oldest seafloor is only about 200 million years old. The oldest ocean rocks are found in the northwestern Pacific
Ocean and the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Fragments of continental crust are much older, with large chunks at
least 3.8 billion years found in Greenland.

With clues left behind in rocks and fossils, geoscientists can reconstruct the past history of Earth's continents.
Most researchers think modern plate tectonics began about 3 billion years ago, based on ancient magmas and
minerals preserved in rocks from that period. Some believe it could have started a billion years after Earth's
birth, at around 3.5 billion years.
"We don't really know when plate tectonics as it looks today got started, but we do know that we have
continental crust that was likely scraped off a down-going slab [a tectonic plate in a subduction zone] that is 3.8
billion years old," Van der Elst said. "We could guess that means plate tectonics was operating, but it might
have looked very different from today."
As the continents jostle around the Earth, they occasionally come together to form giant supercontinents, a
single landmass. One of the earliest big supercontinents, called Rodinia, assembled about 1 billion years ago. Its
breakup is linked to a global glaciation called Snowball Earth.
A more recent supercontinent called Pangaea formed about 300 million years ago. Africa, South America,
North America and Europe nestled closely together, leaving a characteristic pattern of fossils and rocks for
geologists to decipher once Pangaea broke apart. The puzzle pieces left behind by Pangaea, from fossils to the
matching shorelines along the Atlantic Ocean, provided the first hints that the Earth's continents move.
Plates bumping into each other can also cause mountain ranges. For example, India and Asia came together
about 55 million years ago, which created the Himalaya Mountains, according to National Geographic.

In the 20th century, researchers realized that the Earth's crust is not one piece, but is made up of many huge
tectonic plates upon which the continents ride.
Credit: by Karl Tate, Infographics Artist
Additional reporting by Alina Bradford, Live Science contributor
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The Outer Shell

Earth’s outermost, rigid, rocky layer is called the crust. It is composed of low-density,
easily melted rocks; the continental crust is predominantly granitic rock (see granite),
while composition of the oceanic crust corresponds mainly to that of basalt and gabbro. Analyses
of seismic waves, generated by earthquakes within Earth’s interior, show that the crust extends
about 50 km (30 miles) beneath the continents but only 5–10 km (3–6 miles) beneath
the ocean floors.

Earth: surface compositionPercentage of Earth's surface devoted to various land and water
features.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
At the base of the crust, a sharp change in the observed behaviour of seismic waves
marks the interface with the mantle. The mantle is composed of denser rocks, on which
the rocks of the crust float. On geologic timescales, the mantle behaves as a very viscous
fluid and responds to stress by flowing. Together the uppermost mantle and the crust act
mechanically as a single rigid layer, called the lithosphere.
The lithospheric outer shell of Earth is not one continuous piece but is broken, like a
slightly cracked eggshell, into about a dozen major separate rigid blocks, or plates. There
are two types of plates, oceanic and continental. An example of an oceanic plate is the Pacific
Plate, which extends from the East Pacific Rise to the deep-sea trenchesbordering the western part
of the Pacific basin. A continental plate is exemplified by the North American Plate, which
includes North America as well as the oceanic crust between it and a portion of the Mid-Atlantic
Ridge. The latter is an enormous submarine mountain chain that extends down the axis of
the Atlantic basin, passing midway between Africa and North and South America.

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.
The lithospheric plates are about 60 km (35 miles) thick beneath the oceans and 100–200
km (60–120 miles) beneath the continents. (It should be noted that these thicknesses are
defined by the mechanical rigidity of the lithospheric material. They do not correspond to
the thickness of the crust, which is defined at its base by the discontinuity in seismic wave
behaviour, as cited above.) They ride on a weak, perhaps partially molten, layer of the
upper mantle called the asthenosphere. Slow convection currents deep within the mantle
generated by radioactive heating of the interior drive lateral movements of the plates (and
the continents on top of them) at a rate of several centimetres per year. The plates interact
along their margins, and these boundaries are classified into three general types on the
basis of the relative motions of the adjacent plates: divergent, convergent, and transform (or
strike-slip).
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Production and destruction of Earth's crust according to the theory of plate tectonics. Oceanic crust is
continually generated at divergent plate boundaries (typified by midocean ridges and their rift zones)
from upwelling mantle material, and it is consumed in the subduction process at convergent plate
boundaries (marked by deep-sea trenches). Areas of convergence are sites of mountain building or of
formation of volcanic island arcs. At transform, or strike-slip, boundaries, two plates slide past each
other laterally; these areas are often associated with a high frequency of earthquakes.Encyclopædia
Britannica, Inc.
In areas of divergence, two plates move away from each other. Buoyant upwelling
motions in the mantle force the plates apart at rift zones (such as along the middle of
the Atlantic Ocean floor), where magmas from the underlying mantle rise to form new oceanic
crustal rocks.
Lithospheric plates move toward each other along convergent boundaries. When a continental
plate and an oceanic plate come together, the leading edge of the oceanic plate is forced
beneath the continental plate and down into the asthenosphere—a process
called subduction. Only the thinner, denser slabs of oceanic crust will subduct, however.
When two thicker, more buoyant continents come together at convergent zones, they
resist subduction and tend to buckle, producing great mountain ranges. The Himalayas, along
with the adjacent Plateau of Tibet, were formed during such a continent-continent collision,
when India was carried into the Eurasian Plate by relative motion of the Indian-Australian
Plate.
At the third type of plate boundary, the transform variety, two plates slide parallel to one
another in opposite directions. These areas are often associated with high seismicity, as
stresses that build up in the sliding crustal slabs are released at intervals to
generate earthquakes. The San Andreas Fault in California is an example of this type of boundary,
which is also known as a fault or fracture zone (see submarine fracture zone).
Most of Earth’s active tectonic processes, including nearly all earthquakes, occur near plate
margins. Volcanoes form along zones of subduction, because the oceanic crusttends to be remelted
as it descends into the hot mantle and then rises to the surface as lava. Chains of active,
often explosive volcanoes are thus formed in such places as the western Pacific and the
west coasts of the Americas. Older mountain ranges, eroded by weathering and runoff, mark
zones of earlier plate-margin activity. The oldest, most geologically stable parts of Earth
are the central cores of some continents (such as Australia, parts of Africa, and northern
North America). Called continental shields, they are regions where mountain building, faulting,
and other tectonic processes are diminished compared with the activity that occurs at the
boundaries between plates. Because of their stability, erosion has had the time to flatten
the topography of continental shields. It is also on the shields that geologic evidence
of crater scars from ancient impacts of asteroids and comets is better-preserved. Even
there, however, tectonic processes and the action of water have erased many ancient
features. In contrast, much of the oceanic crust is substantially younger (tens of millions of
years old), and none dates back more than 200 million years.
This conceptual framework in which scientists now understand the evolution of
Earth’s lithosphere—termed plate tectonics—is almost universally accepted, although many
details remain to be worked out. For example, scientists have yet to reach a general
agreement as to when the original continental cores formed or how long ago modern plate-
tectonic processes began to operate. Certainly the processes of internal convection,
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segregation of minerals by partial melting and recrystallization, and basaltic volcanism were
operating more vigorously in the first billion years of Earth’s history, when the planet’s interior
was much hotter than it is today; nevertheless, how the surface landmasses were formed
and were dispersed may have been different.
Once major continental shields grew, plate tectonics was characterized by the cyclic
assembly and breakup of supercontinents created by the amalgamation of many smaller
continental cores and island arcs. Scientists have identified two such cycles in the geologic
record. A supercontinent began breaking up about 700 million years ago, in late Precambrian
time, into several major continents, but by about 250 million years ago, near the beginning of
the Triassic Period, the continued drifting of these continents resulted in their fusion again into
a single supercontinental landmass called Pangea. Some 70 million years later, Pangea
began to fragment, gradually giving rise to today’s continental configuration. The
distribution is still asymmetric, with continents predominantly located in the Northern
Hemisphere opposite the Pacific basin.

continental driftThe changing Earth through geologic time, from the late Cambrian Period (c. 500
million years ago) to the projected period of “Pangea Proxima” (c. 250 million years from now). The
locations over time of the present-day continents are shown in the inset.Adapted from C.R. Scotese, The
University of Texas at Arlington
Startlingly, of the four terrestrial planets, only Earth shows evidence of long-
term, pervasive plate tectonics. Both Venus and Mars exhibit geology dominated by
basaltic volcanism on a largely immovable crust, with only faint hints of possibly limited
episodes of horizontal plate motion. Mercury is intrinsically much denser than the other
terrestrial planets, which implies a larger metallic core; its surface is mostly covered with
impact craters, but it also shows a global pattern of scarps suggesting shrinkage of the
planet, associated perhaps with interior cooling. Apparently essential to the kind of plate
tectonics that occurs on Earth are large planetary size (hence, high heat flow and thin crust),
which eliminates Mars, and pervasive crustal water to soften the rock, which Venus lost
very early in its history. Although Earth is indeed geologically active and hence possesses
a youthful surface, Venus’s surface may have been completely renewed by global basaltic
volcanism within the past billion years, and small portions of Mars’s surface may have
experienced very recent erosion from liquid water or landslides.

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There are three kinds of plate tectonic boundaries: divergent, convergent, and transform
plate boundaries.

This image shows the three main types of plate boundaries: divergent, convergent, and transform. Image courtesy of the U.S. Geological
Survey.

Did You Know?

The Chile triple junction is the only modern site on Earth where an actively spreading mid-ocean ridge crest is being
swallowed by a subduction zone at a continental margin. This is a particularly interesting area to study because we can
observe two types of plate boundaries (divergent and convergent) and their processes in very close proximity.

A divergent boundary occurs 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.

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.

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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.

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.

Stress and Strain

Compare and contrast stress versus strain in the Earth’s crust

This section introduces you to the concepts of stress and strain. You will learn their definitions and
how they impact the Earth’s crust.

WHAT YOU’LL LEARN TO DO

 Differentiate between the types of stress: tension, compression, shear.


 Differentiate between the types of strain: elastic, ductile, and fracture.

Stress In Earth’s Crust

Enormous slabs of lithosphere move unevenly over the planet’s spherical surface, resulting in
earthquakes. This chapter deals with two types of geological activity that occur because of plate
tectonics: mountain building and earthquakes. First, we will consider what can happen to rocks when
they are exposed to stress.

Causes and Types of Stress

Figure 1. Stress caused these rocks to fracture.

Stress is the force applied to an object. In geology, stress is the force per unit area that is placed on
a rock. Four types of stresses act on materials.

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 A deeply buried rock is pushed down by the weight of all the material above it. Since the rock
cannot move, it cannot deform. This is called confining stress.
 Compression squeezes rocks together, causing rocks to fold or fracture (break) (figure 1).
Compression is the most common stress at convergent plate boundaries.
 Rocks that are pulled apart are under tension. Rocks under tension lengthen or break apart.
Tension is the major type of stress at divergent plate boundaries.
 When forces are parallel but moving in opposite directions, the stress is called shear (figure 2).
Shear stress is the most common stress at transform plate boundaries.

Figure 2. Shearing in rocks. The white quartz vein has been elongated by shear.

When stress causes a material to change shape, it has undergone strain ordeformation. Deformed
rocks are common in geologically active areas.

A rock’s response to stress depends on the rock type, the surrounding temperature, and pressure
conditions the rock is under, the length of time the rock is under stress, and the type of stress.

Rocks have three possible responses to increasing stress (illustrated in figure 3):

 elastic deformation: the rock returns to its original shape when the stress is removed.
 plastic deformation: the rock does not return to its original shape when the stress is removed.
 fracture: the rock breaks.

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Figure 3. With increasing stress, the rock undergoes: (1) elastic deformation, (2) plastic deformation, and (3) fracture.

Under what conditions do you think a rock is more likely to fracture? Is it more likely to break deep
within Earth’s crust or at the surface? What if the stress applied is sharp rather than gradual?

 At the Earth’s surface, rocks usually break quite quickly, but deeper in the crust, where
temperatures and pressures are higher, rocks are more likely to deform plastically.
 Sudden stress, such as a hit with a hammer, is more likely to make a rock break. Stress applied
over time often leads to plastic deformation.

Geologic Structures

Sedimentary rocks are important for deciphering the geologic history of a region because they follow
certain rules.

1. Sedimentary rocks are formed with the oldest layers on the bottom and the youngest on top.
2. Sediments are deposited horizontally, so sedimentary rock layers are originally horizontal, as
are some volcanic rocks, such as ash falls.

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3. Sedimentary rock layers that are not horizontal are deformed.

You can trace the deformation a rock has experienced by seeing how it differs from its original
horizontal, oldest-on-bottom position (figure 4a). This deformation produces geologic structures such
as folds, joints, and faults that are caused by stresses (figure 4b). Using the rules listed above, try to
figure out the geologic history of the geologic column below.

Figure 4. (a) In the Grand Canyon, the rock layers are exposed like a layer cake. Each layer is made of sediments that were
deposited in a particular environment – perhaps a lake bed, shallow offshore region, or a sand dune. (b) In this geologic column
of the Grand Canyon, the sedimentary rocks of the “Layered Paleozoic Rocks” column (layers 1 through 11) are still horizontal.
Grand Canyon Supergroup rocks (layers 12 through 15) have been tilted. Vishnu Basement Rocks are not sedimentary (rocks
16 through 18). The oldest layers are on the bottom and youngest are on the top.

Folds

Rocks deforming plastically under compressive stresses crumple into folds (figure 5). They do not
return to their original shape. If the rocks experience more stress, they may undergo more folding or
even fracture.

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Figure 5. Snow accentuates the fold exposed in these rocks in Provo Canyon, Utah.

Three types of folds are seen.

 Mononcline: A monocline is a simple bend in the rock layers so that they are no longer
horizontal (see figure 6 for an example).

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Figure 6. At Colorado National Monument, the rocks in a monocline plunge toward the ground.
 Anticline: An anticline is a fold that arches upward. The rocks dip away from the center of the
fold (figure 7). The oldest rocks are at the center of an anticline and the youngest are draped
over them.

Figure 7. (a) Schematic of an anticline. (b) An anticline exposed in a road cut in New Jersey.

When rocks arch upward to form a circular structure, that structure is called a dome. If the top of the
dome is sliced off, where are the oldest rocks located?

 Syncline: A syncline is a fold that bends downward. The youngest rocks are at the center and
the oldest are at the outside (figure 8).

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Figure 8. (a) Schematic of a syncline. (b) This syncline is in Rainbow Basin, California.

When rocks bend downward in a circular structure, that structure is called a basin (figure 9). If the
rocks are exposed at the surface, where are the oldest rocks located?

Figure 9. Basins can be enormous. This is a geologic map of the Michigan Basin, which is centered in the state of Michigan but
extends into four other states and a Canadian province.

Faults

A rock under enough stress will fracture. If there is no movement on either side of a fracture, the
fracture is called a joint, as shown in (figure 10).

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Figure 10. Granite rocks in Joshua Tree National Park showing horizontal and vertical jointing. These joints formed when the
confining stress was removed from the granite.

If the blocks of rock on one or both sides of a fracture move, the fracture is called a fault (figure 11).
Sudden motions along faults cause rocks to break and move suddenly. The energy released is an
earthquake.

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Figure 11. Faults are easy to recognize as they cut across bedded rocks.

Slip is the distance rocks move along a fault. Slip can be up or down the fault plane. Slip is relative,
because there is usually no way to know whether both sides moved or only one. Faults lie at an angle
to the horizontal surface of the Earth. That angle is called the fault’s dip. The dip defines which of two
basic types a fault is. If the fault’s dip is inclined relative to the horizontal, the fault is a dip-slip
fault(figure 12). There are two types of dip-slip faults. In normal faults, the hanging wall drops down
relative to the footwall. In reverse faults, the footwall drops down relative to the hanging wall.

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Figure 12. This diagram illustrates the two types of dip-slip faults: normal faults and reverse faults. Imagine miners extracting a
resource along a fault. The hanging wall is where miners would have hung their lanterns. The footwall is where they would have
walked.

Here is an animation of a normal fault.

A thrust fault is a type of reverse fault in which the fault plane angle is nearly horizontal. Rocks can
slip many miles along thrust faults (Figure 13).

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Figure 13. At Chief Mountain in Montana, the upper rocks at the Lewis Overthrust are more than 1 billion years older than the
lower rocks. How could this happen?

Here is an animation of a thrust fault.

Normal faults can be huge. They are responsible for uplifting mountain ranges in regions
experiencing tensional stress (figure 14).

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Figure 14. The Teton Range in Wyoming rose up along a normal fault.

A strike-slip fault is a dip-slip fault in which the dip of the fault plane is vertical. Strike-slip faults
result from shear stresses (figure 15).

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Figure 15. Imagine placing one foot on either side of a strike-slip fault. One block moves toward you. If that block moves toward
your right foot, the fault is a right-lateral strike-slip fault; if that block moves toward your left foot, the fault is a left-lateral strike-
slip fault.

Figure 16. The San Andreas is a massive transform fault.

California’s San Andreas Fault is the world’s most famous strike-slip fault. It is a right-lateral strike slip
fault (figure 16).

Here is a strike-slip fault animation.

People sometimes say that California will fall into the ocean someday, which is not true.
This animation shows movement on the San Andreas into the future.

Stress and Mountain Building

Two converging continental plates smash upwards to create mountain ranges (figure 17). Stresses
from this upliftcause folds, reverse faults, and thrust faults, which allow the crust to rise upwards.

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Figure 17. (a) The world’s highest mountain range, the Himalayas, is growing from the collision between the Indian and the
Eurasian plates. (b) The crumpling of the Indian and Eurasian plates of continental crust creates the Himalayas.

Subduction of oceanic lithosphere at convergent plate boundaries also builds mountain ranges (figure
18).

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Figure 18. The Andes Mountains are a chain of continental arc volcanoes that build up as the Nazca Plate subducts beneath the
South American Plate.

When tensional stresses pull crust apart, it breaks into blocks that slide up and drop down along
normal faults. The result is alternating mountains and valleys, known as a basin-and-range (figure
19).

Figure 19. (a) In basin-and-range, some blocks are uplifted to form ranges, known as horsts, and some are down-dropped to
form basins, known as grabens. (b) Mountains in Nevada are of classic basin-and-range form.

This is a very quick animation of movement of blocks in a basin-and-range setting.

Summary

 Stress is the force applied to a rock and may cause deformation. The three main types of stress
are typical of the three types of plate boundaries: compression at convergent boundaries,
tension at divergent boundaries, and shear at transform boundaries.
 Where rocks deform plastically, they tend to fold. Brittle deformation brings about fractures and
faults.

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 The two main types of faults are dip-slip (the fault plane is inclined to the horizontal) and strike-
slip (the fault plane is perpendicular to the horizontal).
 The world’s largest mountains grow at convergent plate boundaries, primarily by thrust faulting
and folding.

Strain

As we’ve just learned, the earth’s crust is constantly subjected to forces that push, pull, or twist it.
These forces are called stress. In response to stress, the rocks of the earth undergo strain, also
known as deformation.

Strain is any change in volume or shape.There are four general types of stress. One type of stress is
uniform, which means the force applies equally on all sides of a body of rock. The other three types of
stress, tension, compression and shear, are non-uniform, or directed, stresses.All rocks in the earth
experience a uniform stress at all times. This uniform stress is called lithostatic pressure and it comes
from the weight of rock above a given point in the earth. Lithostatic pressure is also called hydrostatic
pressure. (Included in lithostatic pressure are the weight of the atmosphere and, if beneath an ocean
or lake, the weight of the column of water above that point in the earth. However, compared to the
pressure caused by the weight of rocks above, the amount of pressure due to the weight of water and
air above a rock is negligible, except at the earth’s surface.) The only way for lithostatic pressure on a
rock to change is for the rock’s depth within the earth to change.Because lithostatic pressure is a
uniform stress, a change in lithostatic pressure does not cause fracturing and slippage along faults.
Nevertheless, it may be the cause of certain types of earthquakes. In subducting tectonic plates, the
increased pressure of greater depth within the earth may cause the minerals in the plate to
metamorphose spontaneously into a new set of denser minerals that are stable at the higher
pressure. This is thought to be the likely cause of certain types of deep earthquakes in subduction
zones, including the deepest earthquakes ever recorded.

Rocks are also subjected to the three types of directed (non-uniform) stress – tension, compression,
and shear.

 Tension is a directed (non-uniform) stress that pulls rock apart in opposite directions. The
tensional (also called extensional) forces pull away from each other.
 Compression is a directed (non-uniform) stress that pushes rocks together. The compressional
forces push towards each other.
 Shear is a directed (non-uniform) stress that pushes one side of a body of rock in one direction,
and the opposite side of the body of rock in the opposite direction. The shear forces are pushing
in opposite ways.

In response to stress, rock may undergo three different types of strain – elastic strain, ductile strain,
or fracture.

 Elastic strain is reversible. Rock that has undergone only elastic strain will go back to its
original shape if the stress is released.
 Ductile strain is irreversible. A rock that has undergone ductile strain will remain deformed
even if the stress stops. Another term for ductile strain is plastic deformation.
 Fracture is also called rupture. A rock that has ruptured has abruptly broken into distinct pieces.
If the pieces are offset—shifted in opposite directions from each other—the fracture is a fault.

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Ductile and Brittle Strain

Earth’s rocks are composed of a variety of minerals and exist in a variety of conditions. In different
situations, rocks may act either as ductile materials that are able to undergo an extensive amount of
ductile strain in response to stress, or as brittle materials, which will only undergo a little or no ductile
strain before they fracture. The factors that determine whether a rock is ductile or brittle include:

 Composition—Some minerals, such as quartz, tend to be brittle and are thus more likely to
break under stress. Other minerals, such as calcite, clay, and mica, tend to be ductile and can
undergo much plastic deformation. In addition, the presence of water in rock tends to make it
more ductile and less brittle.
 Temperature—Rocks become softer (more ductile) at higher temperature. Rocks at mantle and
core temperatures are ductile and will not fracture under the stresses that occur deep within the
earth. The crust, and to some extent the lithosphere, are cold enough to fracture if the stress is
high enough.
 Lithostatic pressure—The deeper in the earth a rock is, the higher the lithostatic pressure it is
subjected to. High lithostatic pressure reduces the possibility of fracture because the high
pressure closes fractures before they can form or spread. The high lithostatic pressures of the
earth’s sub-lithospheric mantle and solid inner core, along with the high temperatures, are why
there are no earthquakes deep in the earth.
 Strain rate—The faster a rock is being strained, the greater its chance of fracturing. Even brittle
rocks and minerals, such as quartz, or a layer of cold basalt at the earth’s surface, can undergo
ductile deformation if the strain rate is slow enough.

Most earthquakes occur in the earth’s crust. A smaller number of earthquakes occur in the uppermost
mantle (to about 700 km deep) where subduction is taking place. Rocks in the deeper parts of the
earth do not undergo fracturing and do not produce earthquakes because the temperatures and
pressures there are high enough to make all strain ductile. No earthquakes originate from below the
the earth’s upper mantle.

Stress and Fault Types

The following correlations can be made between types of stress in the earth, and the type of fault that
is likely to result:

 Tension leads to normal faults.


 Compression leads to reverse or thrust faults.

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 Horizontal shear leads to strike-slip faults.

Correlations between type of stress and type of fault can have exceptions. For example, zones of
horizontal stress will likely have strike-slip faults as the predominant fault type. However there may be
active normal and thrust faults in such zones as well, particularly where there are bends or gaps in
the major strike-slip faults.

To give another example, in a region of compression stress in the crust, where sheets of rock are
stacked on active thrust faults, strike-slip faults commonly connect some of the thrust faults together.

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous
section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an
unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section
further or (2) move on to the next section.

EARTH'S CRUSTAL PLATES


Introduction
Crustal plates form the outer layer of the Earth. There are seven major plates and many smaller
plates. These tectonic plates are formed from the Earth's crust and uppermost part of the mantle.

Types of tectonic plates


There are two types of tectonic plates. Continental plates are made primarily of granitic rocks and are
much thicker and older. Oceanic plates are thinner and younger. Together these plates form the
lithosphere.

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Earth's Tectonic Plates, USGS

Continental plates
Igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks form the continents. The basement rocks of the
continents are granitic. The minerals in granitic rocks are lighter than the oceanic crust. The density of
the continental crust is also less than the mantle.

Thickness continental plates


The thickness of the continental plates are between 25 and 70 kilometers thick. The thicker
continental crust is located where great mountain ranges like the Himalayas have formed.

Oceanic crust
Oceanic crust is constantly being formed at a mid ocean ridge. Molten rock from the mantle forms
beneath spreading ridges where two crustal plates are separating. The lava erupts from vents forming
pillow basalt as the plates move apart.

Movement of crustal plates


The oceanic crust moves across ocean basins like a conveyor belt to subduction zones where it is
destroyed as it subducts beneath a lighter plate. The oceanic crust is only about 10 kilometers thick
but is much denser and heavier than the continental crust.

NAMING THE TECTONIC PLATES

Major plates
Scientists have named the largest plates for the continents and oceans they contain. The seven
largest plates are the North American Plate, Eurasian Plate, African Plate, Antarctic Plate, South
American Plate, Indo-Australian Plate and the Pacific Plate.

Smaller plates
The rest of the plates are important but smaller. Scientists do not agree on the number of these small
plates. For example, off the coast of Northern California and Oregon you will find information listing
the Blanco and the Juan de Fuca Plates. Other authorities list the entire landmass as one plate and
call it the Juan de Fuca Plate.

Indo-Australian Plate
Some geologists also list the Indo-Australian Plate as the Australian Plate and the Indian Plate
increasing the number of large important plates to eight instead of seven as mentioned above.

MORE PLATE TECTONIC LINKS

Mid Ocean Ridge The global mid-ocean-ridge system is the longest chain of mountains on Earth and
was not discovered until the 20th Century.

Earthquake Epicenter The epicenter of an earthquake is a point on the Earth's surface, not where
the earthquake originates.

Caribbean Plate This plate is small but very complex. It has a subduction zone, transform fault, and
triple junction.

What is an Earthquake Find out what causes the Earth to shake, rattle and roll during an
earthquake.

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Convergent Boundary There are two types of boundaries where plates converge. They produce
great mountain ranges and large earthquakes.

Crustal Plates There are large and small plates that cover the Earth. Subduction zones form where
these plates are recycled.

Plate Tectonics Find out lots of fascinating facts and interesting trivia on plate tectonics.

Kids Fun Science The links on our home page include information about volcanoes, science
activities, plate tectonics, the rock cycle and much more.

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