Plate Tectonics: New Findings Fill Out The 50-Year-Old Theory That Explains Earth’s Landmasses

Satellite image of California’s San Andreas fault, where two continental plates come together. NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team, CC BY

A continent breaks up due to changes in the way molten rock in the Earth’s interior is flowing. That in turn acts on the lithosphere, changing the direction plates move. This is how, for instance, South America broke away from Africa. The next step is continental drift, sea-floor spreading, ocean formation – and hello, Atlantic Ocean. In fact, the Atlantic is still opening, generating new plate material in the middle of the ocean and making the flight from New York to London a few inches longer each year.

image-20160607-15024-19y7pwa.jpgA simplified ‘Wilson Cycle’. Philip Heron, CC BY

Oceans close when their tectonic plate sinks beneath another, a process geologists call subduction. Off the Pacific Northwest coast of the United States, the ocean is slipping under the continent and into the mantle below the lithosphere, creating in slow motion Mount St Helens and the Cascade mountain range.

In addition to undergoing spreading (construction) and subduction (destruction), plates can simply rub up against each other - usually generating large earthquakes. These interactions, also discovered by Tuzo Wilson back in the 1960s, are termed “conservative.” All three processes occur at the edges of plate boundaries.

But the conventional theory of plate tectonics stumbles when it tries to explain some things. For example, what produces mountain ranges and earthquakes that occur within continental interiors, far from plate boundaries?

Gone but not forgotten

The answer may lie in a map of ancient continental collisions my colleagues and I assembled.

Over the past 20 years, improved computer power and mathematical techniques have allowed researchers to more clearly look below the Earth’s crust and explore the deeper parts of our plates. Globally, we find many instances of scarring left over from the ancient collisions of continents that formed our present-day continental interiors.

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