A Science Odyssey Mountain Maker, Earth Shaker

Intro to Plate Tectonic Theory

animation of breakup of Pangaea Plate tectonics is the theory that Earth's outer layer is made up of plates, which have moved throughout Earth's history. The theory explains the how and why behind mountains, volcanoes, and earthquakes, as well as how, long ago, similar animals could have lived at the same time on what are now widely separated continents.

You probably wouldn't recognize the Earth if you could see it 225 million years ago. Back then, all the major continents formed one giant supercontinent, called Pangaea.

Perhaps initiated by heat building up underneath the vast continent, Pangaea began to rift, or split apart, around 200 million years ago. Oceans filled the areas between these new sub-continents. The land masses continued to move apart, riding on separate plates, until they reached the positions they currently occupy. These continents are still on the move today.

Cross-sectional view of Earth, showing mantle, convection currents, and plate motion

Exactly what drives plate tectonics is not known. One theory is that convection within the Earth's mantle pushes the plates, in much the same way that air heated by your body rises upward and is deflected sideways when it reaches the ceiling.

Another theory is that gravity is pulling the older, colder, and thus heavier ocean floor with more force than the newer, lighter seafloor.

Whatever drives the movement, plate tectonic activity takes place at four types of boundaries: divergent boundaries, where new crust is formed; convergent boundaries, where crust is consumed; collisional boundaries, where two land masses collide; and transform boundaries, where two plates slide against each other.

The Sea Floor Spread (divergent boundary)

The Continental Slide (convergent boundary)

The Continental Crush (collisional boundary)

Slippin' and a Slidin' (transform boundary)

Back to first page of Plate Tectonics

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