10.4 Plates, Plate Motions, and Plate-Boundary Processes

Continental drift and sea-floor spreading became widely accepted around 1965 as more and more geologists started thinking in these terms. By the end of 1967, Earth’s surface had been mapped into a series of plates (Figure 10.16). The major plates are Eurasia, Pacific, India, Australia, North America, South America, Africa, and Antarctic. There are also numerous small plates (e.g., Juan de Fuca, Nazca, Scotia, Philippine, Caribbean), and many very small plates or sub-plates. For example the Juan de Fuca Plate is actually three separate plates (Gorda, Juan de Fuca, and Explorer) that all move in the same general direction but at slightly different rates.

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Figure 10.16 A map showing 15 of the Earth’s tectonic plates and the approximate rates and directions of plate motions.

Rates of motions of the major plates range from less than 1 cm/y to over 10 cm/y. The Pacific Plate is the fastest at over 10 cm/y in some areas, followed by the Australian and Nazca Plates. The North American Plate is one of the slowest, averaging around 1 cm/y in the south up to almost 4 cm/y in the north.

Plates move as rigid bodies, so it may seem surprising that the North American Plate can be moving at different rates in different places. The explanation is that plates move in a rotational manner. The North American Plate, for example, rotates counter-clockwise; the Eurasian Plate rotates clockwise.

Boundaries between the plates are of three types: divergent (i.e., moving apart), convergent (i.e., moving together), and transform (moving side by side). Before we talk about processes at plate boundaries, it’s important to point out that there are never gaps between plates. The plates are made up of crust and the lithospheric part of the mantle (Figure 10.17), and even though they are moving all the time, and in different directions, there is never a significant amount of space between them. Plates are thought to move along the lithosphere-asthenosphere boundary, as the asthenosphere is the zone of partial melting. It is assumed that the relative lack of strength of the partial melting zone facilitates the sliding of the lithospheric plates.

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Figure 10.17 The crust and upper mantle. Tectonic plates consist of lithosphere, which includes the crust and the lithospheric (rigid) part of the mantle.

At spreading centres, the lithospheric mantle may be very thin because the upward convective motion of hot mantle material generates temperatures that are too high for the existence of a significant thickness of rigid lithosphere (Figure 10.12). The fact that the plates include both crustal material and lithospheric mantle material makes it possible for a single plate to be made up of both oceanic and continental crust. For example, the North American Plate includes most of North America, plus half of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Similarly the South American Plate extends across the western part of the southern Atlantic Ocean, while the European and African plates each include part of the eastern Atlantic Ocean. The Pacific Plate is almost entirely oceanic, but it does include the part of California west of the San Andreas Fault.

Divergent Boundaries

Divergent boundaries are spreading boundaries, where new oceanic crust is created from magma derived from partial melting of the mantle caused by decompression as hot mantle rock from depth is moved toward the surface (Figure 10.18). The triangular zone of partial melting near the ridge crest is approximately 60 km thick and the proportion of magma is about 10% of the rock volume, thus producing crust that is about 6 km thick. Most divergent boundaries are located at the oceanic ridges (although some are on land), and the crustal material created at a spreading boundary is always oceanic in character; in other words, it is mafic igneous rock (e.g., basalt or gabbro, rich in ferromagnesian minerals). Spreading rates vary considerably, from 1 cm/y to 3 cm/y in the Atlantic, to between 6 cm/y and 10 cm/y in the Pacific. Some of the processes taking place in this setting include:

Magma from the mantle pushing up to fill the voids left by divergence of the two platesPillow lavas forming where magma is pushed out into seawater (Figure 10.19)Vertical sheeted dykes intruding into cracks resulting from the spreadingMagma cooling more slowly in the lower part of the new crust and forming gabbro bodies
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Figure 10.18 The general processes that take place at a divergent boundary. The area within the dashed white rectangle is shown in Figure 10.19.

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Figure 10.19 Depiction of the processes and materials formed at a divergent boundary

Spreading is hypothesized to start within a continental area with up-warping or doming related to an underlying mantle plume or series of mantle plumes. The buoyancy of the mantle plume material creates a dome within the crust, causing it to fracture in a radial pattern, with three arms spaced at approximately 120° (Figure 10.20). When a series of mantle plumes exists beneath a large continent, the resulting rifts may align and lead to the formation of a rift valley (such as the present-day Great Rift Valley in eastern Africa). It is suggested that this type of valley eventually develops into a linear sea (such as the present-day Red Sea), and finally into an ocean (such as the Atlantic). It is likely that as many as 20 mantle plumes, many of which still exist, were responsible for the initiation of the rifting of Pangea along what is now the mid-Atlantic ridge (see Figure 10.14).

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Figure 10.20 Depiction of the process of dome and three-part rift formation (left) and of continental rifting between the African and South American parts of Pangea at around 200 Ma (right)

Convergent Boundaries

Convergent boundaries, where two plates are moving toward each other, are of three types, depending on the type of crust present on either side of the boundary — oceanic or continental. The types are ocean-ocean, ocean-continent, and continent-continent.

At an ocean-ocean convergent boundary, one of the plates (oceanic crust and lithospheric mantle) is pushed, or subducted, under the other. Often it is the older and colder plate that is denser and subducts beneath the younger and hotter plate. There is commonly an ocean trench along the boundary. The subducted lithosphere descends into the hot mantle at a relatively shallow angle close to the subduction zone, but at steeper angles farther down (up to about 45°). As discussed in the context of subduction-related volcanism in Chapter 4, the significant volume of water within the subducting material is released as the subducting crust is heated. This water is mostly derived from alteration of pyroxene and olivine to serpentine near the spreading ridge shortly after the rock’s formation. It mixes with the overlying mantle, and the addition of water to the hot mantle lowers the crust’s melting point and leads to the formation of magma (flux melting). The magma, which is lighter than the surrounding mantle material, rises through the mantle and the overlying oceanic crust to the ocean floor where it creates a chain of volcanic islands known as an island arc. A mature island arc develops into a chain of relatively large islands (such as Japan or Indonesia) as more and more volcanic material is extruded and sedimentary rocks accumulate around the islands.

As described above in the context of Benioff zones (Figure 10.10), earthquakes take place close to the boundary between the subducting crust and the overriding crust. The largest earthquakes occur near the surface where the subducting plate is still cold and strong.

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Figure 10.21 Configuration and processes of an ocean-ocean convergent boundary

Examples of ocean-ocean convergent zones are subduction of the Pacific Plate south of Alaska (Aleutian Islands) and west of the Philippines, subduction of the India Plate south of Indonesia, and subduction of the Atlantic Plate beneath the Caribbean Plate (Figure 10.21).

At an ocean-continent convergent boundary, the oceanic plate is pushed under the continental plate in the same manner as at an ocean-ocean boundary. Sediment that has accumulated on the continental slope is thrust up into an accretionary wedge, and compression leads to thrusting within the continental plate (Figure 10.22). The mafic magma produced adjacent to the subduction zone rises to the base of the continental crust and leads to partial melting of the crustal rock. The resulting magma ascends through the crust, producing a mountain chain with many volcanoes.

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Figure 10.22 Configuration and processes of an ocean-continent convergent boundary

Examples of ocean-continent convergent boundaries are subduction of the Nazca Plate under South America (which has created the Andes Range) and subduction of the Juan de Fuca Plate under North America (creating the mountains Garibaldi, Baker, St. Helens, Rainier, Hood, and Shasta, collectively known as the Cascade Range).

A continent-continent collision occurs when a continent or large island that has been moved along with subducting oceanic crust collides with another continent (Figure 10.23). The colliding continental material will not be subducted because it is too light (i.e., because it is composed largely of light continental rocks ), but the root of the oceanic plate will eventually break off and sink into the mantle. There is tremendous deformation of the pre-existing continental rocks, and creation of mountains from that rock, from any sediments that had accumulated along the shores (i.e., within geosynclines) of both continental masses, and commonly also from some ocean crust and upper mantle material.

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Figure 10.23 Configuration and processes of a continent-continent convergent boundary

Examples of continent-continent convergent boundaries are the collision of the India Plate with the Eurasian Plate, creating the Himalaya Mountains, and the collision of the African Plate with the Eurasian Plate, creating the series of ranges extending from the Alps in Europe to the Zagros Mountains in Iran. The Rocky Mountains in B.C. and Alberta are also a result of continent-continent collisions.

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Transform boundaries exist where one plate slides past another without production or destruction of crustal material. As explained above, most transform faults connect segments of mid-ocean ridges and are thus ocean-ocean plate boundaries (Figure 10.15). Some transform faults connect continental parts of plates. An example is the San Andreas Fault, which connects the southern end of the Juan de Fuca Ridge with the northern end of the East Pacific Rise (ridge) in the Gulf of California (Figures 10.24 an 10.25). The part of California west of the San Andreas Fault and all of Baja California are on the Pacific Plate. Transform faults do not just connect divergent boundaries. For example, the Queen Charlotte Fault connects the north end of the Juan de Fuca Ridge, starting at the north end of Vancouver Island, to the Aleutian subduction zone.

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Figure 10.24 The San Andreas Fault extends from the north end of the East Pacific Rise in the Gulf of California to the southern end of the Juan de Fuca Ridge. All of the red lines on this map are transform faults.

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Figure 10.25 The San Andreas Fault at Parkfield in central California. The person with the orange shirt is standing on the Pacific Plate and the person at the far side of the bridge is on the North American Plate. The bridge is designed to slide on its foundation.