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ERTH2404 Lecture 7: Plate Tectonics

Dr. Jason Mah

Reading assignment
Please read Kehews book to complement the material presented in this lecture: Chap. 2 p. 27-53;

Review: Metamorphic rocks

Primary metamorphic agents are:
Temperature & pressure

Protolith: the original rock from which the metamorphic rock was formed Shale -> Slate -> Phyllite -> Schist -> Gneiss Common textures: foliated, porphyroblastic, gneissic Folation has an impact on rock strength

Lecture Objectives & Contents

To describe the Earths internal structure
The layered Earth

To understand the facts from which the theory of plate tectonics gradually developed
Pre-"plate tectonics" Development of "plate tectonics theory

To describe the tectonic cycle

Tectonic environments

Canadian History
J. Tuzo Wilson (1908 1993) Canadian geophysicist Father of "plate tectonics" Visionary scientist and educator
Professor of Geophysics at the University of Toronto (1946-1974) Director of the Ontario Science Centre (1974-1985)

Differentiation of the Earth

Earth is differentiated into layers based on:
Density Physical properties and strength

Crust: 5 to 30km Mantle: 2900 km Core: 3461 km


Density Model
Thin crust rich in silicon and oxygen Magnesium- and iron-rich mantle Iron-rich metallic core

Density increasing from surface to center

4th Ref.: Abbott, P.L. 2004. Natural Disasters. Edition. Fig. 2.2. Shown with permission.

Buoyancy principle


Low-density continents float on top of the denser mantle

Ref.: Abbott, P.L. 2004. Natural Disasters. 4th Edition. Fig. 2.3. Shown with permission.

Plate tectonics model

Rigid lithosphere
Crust and upper mantle

Plastic asthenosphere
Ref.: Abbott, P.L. 2004. Natural Disasters. 4th Edition. Fig. 2.2. Shown with permission.

Upper mantles Convection currents

Plastic mesophere

More viscous than asthenosphere Slower convection

Liquid outer core Solid inner core


Heat transfer by fluid flow


Ref.: Abbott, P.L. 2004. Natural Disasters. Edition. Fig. 2.2. Shown with permission.


Lithosphere and asthenosphere

Low-density and rigid lithosphere floats on top of the dense and plastic asthenosphere
Boundary at a depth of 100 km
Ref.: Abbott, P.L. 2004. Natural Disasters. 4th Edition. Fig. 2.3. Shown with permission.


History of Plate Tectonics

Early hypotheses
Aristotle (384-322 BC)
Earthquakes created by underground air escaping explosively after being heated by central fires

Kircher, Athanasius (German scholar, 1602-1680)

Had witnessed active volcanoes in Italy Drew an early cross-section of the Earth Subterranean reservoirs of fire inflame volcanoes around the globe

Kircher Model

Source: Asociacin Espaola Para la Enseanza de las Ciencias de la Tierra


17th-18th centuries Theory stating that the Earths landscape is shaped primarily by great catastrophes
Based on Christian religious teaching Earth has been created in 4004 BC

Required violent change to produce topographic features in only 6000 years


James Hutton (1726 1797) The Earths slow natural processes operate with the same intensity and under the same set of physical constraints now as in the geologic past
What happened in the past will happen in the future The present is the key to the past (Sir Archibald Geike 1835-1924)

At the end of the 19th century

Earths internal structure understood
The Earth radiates heat Lord Kelvin estimated the cooling rate and calculated that the Earth is 20-100 Ma old

Basic geology of continents known

Continents assumed to be fixed Earth assumed to be as rigid as steel

Radioactivity discovered but not geochronology


Rock cycle


Rock cycle
The rock cycle describes processes by which older rocks are made into new rocks
Theoretical concept predating plate tectonics


Rock cycle
The rock cycle fails to explain the processes on the surface of the earth
Why are continents and oceans different? How do mountains form? Why do you find same fossil plants on several continents?


Alfred Wegener (1880-1930)

German meteorologist and Arctic explorer Put forward the theory of "continental drift"
Published "The Origin of the Continents and the Oceans" (1915, five editions to 1929) Hypothesis largely correct but with incorrect details Rejected by the European scientific community Embraced by Southern hemisphere geologists

Wegeners Continental drift

1. Longitudinal shift between 2 positions on 2 continents over time 2. Jigsaw fit of continental margins 3. Same fossils found on widely separated continents 4. Geological features on fitted continents match 5. Ancient glacial events found in tropical continents

Longitudinal shift
If continents moving, cities should move apart


Fitting continental margins


Matching fossils

Source: USGS


Matching geology
Rock types, mountain belts match


Ancient climate

All rocks 300M in age


Solution to Ancient climate


Pangea 200 mya


Continental drift: Main problem

Inability to provide a mechanism capable of moving continents across the globe
Wegener suggested that the low-density continents had moved laterally through the denser mantle Continents plowing through oceans? Mechanically impossibility!

Oceanic plates not accounted for


Continental drift: Main problem

Breakthrough came from ocean floor studies following WWII technological advances
Sonar Magnetometer Gravimeter


Plate tectonics revolution

J. Tuzo Wilson (1908 1993) Father of "plate tectonics" Many geologists have maintained that movements of the Earths crust are concentrated in mobile belts, which may take the form of mountains, mid-ocean ridges or major faults this article suggests that these features are not isolated, that few come to dead ends, but that they are connected into a continuous network of mobile belts about the Earth which divide the surface into several large rigid plates. Wilson (1965), Nature

Plate tectonics: Wilson

Other major contributions:
"Hot spot" hypothesis (1963)
The Hawaiian and other volcanic island chains may have formed due to the movement of a plate over a stationary "hotspot" in the mantle

Transform faults (1965)

Transform faults offset the crust horizontally, without creating or destroying crust


Plate tectonics
Continents move laterally, as part of thicker, rigid lithospheric slabs that slide along a plastic asthenosphere
Lithosphere: continental and oceanic crust and rigid upper mantle Asthenosphere: convecting upper mantle

Convection in the asthenosphere is the basic driving force


Plate tectonics
Ocean studies
Magnetization patterns on the sea floors Age of ocean basins Bathymetry, study of ocean floors

Earthquakes Continental drift


Topography of the Ocean

Hesss Theory of seafloor spreading


Earths internal magnetic field

Magnetic lines of force: theoretical representation of the force acting on a small magnet Earths internal magnetic field resembles that of a bar magnet
Equator: horizontal lines of force
Parallel to surface

Magnetic poles: vertical lines of force

Pointing in at the North magnetic pole

Earths internal magnetic field

Field lines: North Pole IN, South Pole Out


Earths internal magnetic field not constant through time
Polar wandering

The poles reverse polarity every few 0.1 Ma!!


Proof of magnetic field reversal As lava cools, magnetic minerals align in the direction of the Earths magnetic field
Record magnetic polarity at the time of cooling




Seafloor spreading
Magnetic records of the sea floor are studied
Seafloor surveys (19501960) revealed patterns of normal and reversely magnetized crust

Symmetrical stripes interpreted to result from the creation of new ocean floor at mid-ocean ridges


Seafloor spreading

Vine & Matthews


Seafloor spreading
Seafloor is a big tape recorder

Ref.: Abbott, P.L. 2004. Natural Disasters. 4th Edition. Fig. 2.11. Shown with permission.


Age of ocean basins

Source: United States Geological Survey (USGS)


Bathymetry: study of underwater depth in a body of water Detection of underwater artifacts Mid-ocean ridges
Shallow above mid-ocean ridges Asthenospheric budge

Gradually deeper away from ridges

Rocks increase in density as they cool Isostatic down warping due to sediment accumulation

We now know new crust/lithosphere is constantly being created on the seafloor To maintain equilibrium, what does this mean?


The crust/lithosphere must also be destroyed to maintain equilibrium
Lithosphere recycled into mantle at convergent margins


Oceanic subduction zones

Oceanic lithosphere gets older, colder, denser with time, eventually dense enough to sink into mantle


Earthquakes support subduction

Hypocenter: point of origin of an earthquake in the subsurface
Relation between hypocenter location and the subduction process Shallow earthquakes in the overriding and subducting plates Intermediate and deep earthquakes in the subducting plate No earthquake below 600 km Material not rigid enough

Earthquakes support subduction

Hypocenter distribution


Ref.: Abbott, P.L. 2004. Natural Disasters. Edition. Fig. 2.13. Shown with permission.


Epicenter: point on the Earths surface directly above the hypocenter Epicenter locations outline plate boundaries




Ref.: Abbott, P.L. 2004. Natural Disasters. Edition. Fig. 2.12. Shown with permission.


Subduction zones
Subduction: process of one lithospheric plate descending beneath another
Light plate: overriding plate Denser plate: subducting plate
Pulled down by gravity Average angle at which oceanic lithosphere descends into the mantle is 45 Surface expression is an ocean trench Gradually melts into the asthenosphere

Subduction zones
Oceanic-oceanic convergence Oceanic-continental convergence

Japan, Aleutians

Western North and South America

Source: USGS


Continental convergence
Compression Low-density continental crust cannot subduct
Thickening of the crust, mountain building

Example: Himalayas

Source: USGS

Transform Margins
Crustal blocks slide past each other No crust created and no crust destroyed


Summary of Plate Boundaries

Earthquakes small, shallow

Earthquakes large, shallow to deep

Earthquakes small to large, shallow


Summary of Plate Boundaries

Animation _outreach/animations/11


Current Theory: Tectonic cycle

Tectonic: related to the deformation forces acting on the Earths lithosphere and responsible for the creation of mountain ranges and faults
In Ancient Greece, a builder was called a "tekton"

A tectonic cycle is an episode of large-scale deformation of the Earths surface One cycle 250 Ma

Current Theory: Tectonic cycle

Conveyor belt model
Melted asthenosphere
Flows upwards by convection Cools to form new lithosphere along mid-ocean ridges New oceanic crust created at a rate of 2-10 cm/year

New lithosphere moves away laterally

Lighter continental crust moves as on a conveyor belt


Our tectonic world

Source: U.S. Geological Survey


Our tectonic world

Circum-Pacific belt
Largest plate: Pacific plate 80% of earthquakes 75% of active and dormant volcanoes

Mediterranean Sea and trans-Asiatic belt

15% of earthquakes

Largest continent-continent collision: Himalayas


North American Plate

Eastern boundary:
Sea floor spreading along the mid-Atlantic ridge

Western boundary:
North: Subduction of the Juan de Fuca plate under the North American plate South: North American plate and Pacific plate moving along side each other
San Andrea transform fault


Tectonic environments
Four tectonic environments:
1. Spreading centers 2. Transform faults 3. Convergent zones
Subduction zones Continent-continent collision zones

4. Hot spots


Spreading centers
Spreading center: An elongated region where two plates are being pulled away from each other
Stress regime: tension

New crust is formed as molten rock is forced upward into the gap


Transform faults
Transform fault: Fault that accommodates horizontal movement of tectonic plates against each other (J. Tuzo Wilson, 1965)
No material created nor consumed Stress regime: shear


Convergent zones
Convergent zone: Region where two tectonic plates collide
Stress regime: compression Type depends on the type of lithosphere in the plates that are colliding
Where a dense oceanic plate collides with a less-dense oceanic or continental plate subduction zone Where two continental plates collide, plates crumple and compress continent-continent collision zone

Hot spots
Hot spots: plumes of slowly rising mantle rocks that create volcanism on the Earths surface Deep seated
Originate in the mesosphere Pass through the lithosphere as magma Supply an active volcano


Hot spots


Hot spots
Source? Need a zone with temperature contrast to produce upwelling plume:
1.Core-mantle boundary 2.Other density boundaries in upper mantle that might also be convection boundaries


What are the important differences between Wegeners Theory of Continental Drift and the modern Theory of Plate Tectonics?
1. Wegener: Continents are drifting Plate tectonics: Continental and oceanic plates are in motion 2. Wegener: Could not identify driving force Plate tectonics: Convection in mantel brings new crust to the seafloor

Other driving mechanisms

Slab Pull (primary)
Descending slab old, cold, dense, pulls rest of lithospheric plate behind it Opposed by viscous drag in mantle Clear relationship between rate of plate motion and length of subduction margin


Other driving mechanisms

Ridge Push (secondary)
Lithosphere thickens away from ridge Ridge topography supported by low-density asthenosphere, pushes out on lithosphere Gravity pulls young lithosphere down at ridge


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