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Plate Tectonics

An Overview Of Tectonic Theory

Plate tectonic theory asserts that Earth is divided into core, mantle, and crust. The crust is subdivided into oceanic and continental crust. The oceanic crust is thin (3–4.3 mi [5–7 km]), basaltic (<50% SiO2), dense, and young (<250 million years old). In contrast, the continental crust is thick (18.6–40 mi [30–65 km]), granitic (>60% SiO2), light, and old (250–3,700 million years old). The outer crust is further subdivided by the subdivision of the lithosperic plates, of which it is a part, into 13 major plates. These lithospheric plates, composed of crust and the outer layer of the mantle, contain a varying combination of oceanic and continental crust. The lithospheric plates move on top of mantle's athenosphere.

Boundaries are adjacent areas where plates meet. Divergent boundaries are areas under tension where plates are pushed apart by magma upwelling from the mantle. Collision boundaries are sites of compression either resulting in subduction (where lithospheric plates are driven down and destroyed in the molten mantle) or in crustal uplifting that results in orogeny (mountain building). At transform boundaries, exemplified by the San Andreas fault, the continents create a shearing force as they move laterally past one another.

New oceanic crust is created at divergent boundaries that are sites of sea-floor spreading. Because Earth remains roughly the same size, there must be a concurrent destruction or uplifting of crust so that the net area of crust remains the same. Accordingly, as crust is created at divergent boundaries, oceanic crust must be destroyed in areas of subduction underneath the lighter continental crust. The net area is also preserved by continental crust uplift that occurs when less dense continental crust collides with continental crust. Because both continental crusts resist subduction, the momentum of collision causes an uplift of crust, forming mountain chains. A vivid example of this type of collision is found in the ongoing collision of India with Asia that has resulted in the Himalayan mountains that continue to increase in height each year. This dynamic theory of plate tectonics also explained the formation of island arcs formed by rising material at sites where oceanic crust subducts under oceanic crust, the formation of mountain chains where oceanic crust subducts under continental crust (e.g., Andes mountains), and volcanic arcs in the Pacific. The evidence for deep, hot, convective currents combined with plate movement (and concurrent continental drift) also explained the mid-plate "hot spot" formation of volcanic island chains (e.g., Hawaiian islands) and the formation of rift valleys (e.g., Rift Valley of Africa). Mid-plate earthquakes, such as the powerful New Madrid earthquake in the United States in 1811, are explained by interplate pressures that bend plates much like a piece of sheet metal pressed from opposite sides.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Planck mass to PositPlate Tectonics - Continental Drift Versus Plate Tectonics, An Overview Of Tectonic Theory, Proofs Of Tectonic Theory, Rates Of Plate Movement