Scientists now have a fairly good understanding of how the plates move and how such movements relate to earthquake activity. Most movement occurs along narrow zones between plates where the results of plate-tectonic forces are most evident.
There are four types of plate boundaries:
Divergent boundaries occur along spreading centers where plates are moving apart and new crust is created by magma pushing up from the mantle. Picture two giant conveyor belts, facing each other but slowly moving in opposite directions as they transport newly formed oceanic crust away from the ridge crest.
Perhaps the best known of the divergent boundaries is the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. This submerged mountain range, which extends from the Arctic Ocean to beyond the southern tip of Africa, is but one segment of the global mid-ocean ridge system that encircles the Earth. The rate of spreading along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge averages about 2.5 centimeters per year (cm/yr), or 25 km in a million years. This rate may seem slow by human standards, but because this process has been going on for millions of years, it has resulted in plate movement of thousands of kilometers. Seafloor spreading over the past 100 to 200 million years has caused the Atlantic Ocean to grow from a tiny inlet of water between the continents of Europe, Africa, and the Americas into the vast ocean that exists today.
The volcanic country of Iceland, which straddles the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, offers scientists a natural laboratory for studying on land the processes also occurring along the submerged parts of a spreading ridge. Iceland is splitting along the spreading center between the North American and Eurasian Plates, as North America moves westward relative to Eurasia.
Map showing the Mid-Atlantic Ridge splitting Iceland and separating the North American and Eurasian Plates. The map also shows Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, the Thingvellir area, and the locations of some of Iceland's active volcanoes (red triangles), including Krafla.
The consequences of plate movement are easy to see around Krafla Volcano, in the northeastern part of Iceland. Here, existing ground cracks have widened and new ones appear every few months. From 1975 to 1984, numerous episodes of rifting (surface cracking) took place along the Krafla fissure zone. Some of these rifting events were accompanied by volcanic activity; the ground would gradually rise 1-2 m before abruptly dropping, signalling an impending eruption. Between 1975 and 1984, the displacements caused by rifting totalled about 7 m.
In East Africa, spreading processes have already torn Saudi Arabia away from the rest of the African continent, forming the Red Sea. The actively splitting African Plate and the Arabian Plate meet in what geologists call a triple junction, where the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden. A new spreading center may be developing under Africa along the East African Rift Zone. When the continental crust stretches beyond its limits, tension cracks begin to appear on the Earth's surface. Magma rises and squeezes through the widening cracks, sometimes to erupt and form volcanoes. The rising magma, whether or not it erupts, puts more pressure on the crust to produce additional fractures and, ultimately, the rift zone.
East Africa may be the site of the Earth's next major ocean. Plate interactions in the region provide scientists an opportunity to study first hand how the Atlantic may have begun to form about 200 million years ago. Geologists believe that, if spreading continues, the three plates that meet at the edge of the present-day African continent will separate completely, allowing the Indian Ocean to flood the area and making the easternmost corner of Africa (the Horn of Africa) a large island.
The size of the Earth has not changed significantly during the past 600 million years, and very likely not since shortly after its formation 4.6 billion years ago. The Earth's unchanging size implies that the crust must be destroyed at about the same rate as it is being created, as Harry Hess surmised. Such destruction (recycling) of crust takes place along convergent boundaries where plates are moving toward each other, and sometimes one plate sinks (is subducted) under another. The location where sinking of a plate occurs is called a subduction zone.
The type of convergence -- called by some a very slow "collision" -- that takes place between plates depends on the kind of lithosphere involved. Convergence can occur between an oceanic and a largely continental plate, or between two largely oceanic plates, or between two largely continental plates.
If by magic we could pull a plug and drain the Pacific Ocean, we would see a most amazing sight -- a number of long narrow, curving trenches thousands of kilometers long and 8 to 10 km deep cutting into the ocean floor. Trenches are the deepest parts of the ocean floor and are created by subduction.
Off the coast of South America along the Peru-Chile trench, the oceanic Nazca Plate is pushing into and being subducted under the continental part of the South American Plate. In turn, the overriding South American Plate is being lifted up, creating the towering Andes mountains, the backbone of the continent. Strong, destructive earthquakes and the rapid uplift of mountain ranges are common in this region. Even though the Nazca Plate as a whole is sinking smoothly and continuously into the trench, the deepest part of the subducting plate breaks into smaller pieces that become locked in place for long periods of time before suddenly moving to generate large earthquakes. Such earthquakes are often accompanied by uplift of the land by as much as a few meters.
On 9 June 1994, a magnitude-8.3 earthquake struck about 320 km northeast of La Paz, Bolivia, at a depth of 636 km. This earthquake, within the subduction zone between the Nazca Plate and the South American Plate, was one of deepest and largest subduction earthquakes recorded in South America. Fortunately, even though this powerful earthquake was felt as far away as Minnesota and Toronto, Canada, it caused no major damage because of its great depth.
Oceanic-continental convergence also sustains many of the Earth's active volcanoes, such as those in the Andes and the Cascade Range in the Pacific Northwest. The eruptive activity is clearly associated with subduction, but scientists vigorously debate the possible sources of magma: Is magma generated by the partial melting of the subducted oceanic slab, or the overlying continental lithosphere, or both?
As with oceanic-continental convergence, when two oceanic plates converge, one is usually subducted under the other, and in the process a trench is formed. The Marianas Trench (paralleling the Mariana Islands), for example, marks where the fast-moving Pacific Plate converges against the slower moving Philippine Plate. The Challenger Deep, at the southern end of the Marianas Trench, plunges deeper into the Earth's interior (nearly 11,000 m) than Mount Everest, the world's tallest mountain, rises above sea level (about 8,854 m).
Subduction processes in oceanic-oceanic plate convergence also result in the formation of volcanoes. Over millions of years, the erupted lava and volcanic debris pile up on the ocean floor until a submarine volcano rises above sea level to form an island volcano. Such volcanoes are typically strung out in chains called island arcs. As the name implies, volcanic island arcs, which closely parallel the trenches, are generally curved. The trenches are the key to understanding how island arcs such as the Marianas and the Aleutian Islands have formed and why they experience numerous strong earthquakes. Magmas that form island arcs are produced by the partial melting of the descending plate and/or the overlying oceanic lithosphere. The descending plate also provides a source of stress as the two plates interact, leading to frequent moderate to strong earthquakes.
The Himalayan mountain range dramatically demonstrates one of the most visible and spectacular consequences of plate tectonics. When two continents meet head-on, neither is subducted because the continental rocks are relatively light and, like two colliding icebergs, resist downward motion. Instead, the crust tends to buckle and be pushed upward or sideways. The collision of India into Asia 50 million years ago caused the Eurasian Plate to crumple up and override the Indian Plate. After the collision, the slow continuous convergence of the two plates over millions of years pushed up the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau to their present heights. Most of this growth occurred during the past 10 million years. The Himalayas, towering as high as 8,854 m above sea level, form the highest continental mountains in the world. Moreover, the neighboring Tibetan Plateau, at an average elevation of about 4,600 m, is higher than all the peaks in the Alps except for Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa, and is well above the summits of most mountains in the United States.
Above: The collision between the Indian and Eurasian plates has pushed up the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau. Below: Cartoon cross sections showing the meeting of these two plates before and after their collision. The reference points (small squares) show the amount of uplift of an imaginary point in the Earth's crust during this mountain-building process.
The zone between two plates sliding horizontally past one another is called a transform-fault boundary, or simply a transform boundary. The concept of transform faults originated with Canadian geophysicist J. Tuzo Wilson, who proposed that these large faults or fracture zones connect two spreading centers (divergent plate boundaries) or, less commonly, trenches (convergent plate boundaries). Most transform faults are found on the ocean floor. They commonly offset the active spreading ridges, producing zig-zag plate margins, and are generally defined by shallow earthquakes. However, a few occur on land, for example the San Andreas fault zone in California. This transform fault connects the East Pacific Rise, a divergent boundary to the south, with the South Gorda -- Juan de Fuca -- Explorer Ridge, another divergent boundary to the north.
The Blanco, Mendocino, Murray, and Molokai fracture zones are some of the many fracture zones (transform faults) that scar the ocean floor and offset ridges (see text). The San Andreas is one of the few transform faults exposed on land.
The San Andreas fault zone, which is about 1,300 km long and in places tens of kilometers wide, slices through two thirds of the length of California. Along it, the Pacific Plate has been grinding horizontally past the North American Plate for 10 million years, at an average rate of about 5 cm/yr. Land on the west side of the fault zone (on the Pacific Plate) is moving in a northwesterly direction relative to the land on the east side of the fault zone (on the North American Plate).
Oceanic fracture zones are ocean-floor valleys that horizontally offset spreading ridges; some of these zones are hundreds to thousands of kilometers long and as much as 8 km deep. Examples of these large scars include the Clarion, Molokai, and Pioneer fracture zones in the Northeast Pacific off the coast of California and Mexico. These zones are presently inactive, but the offsets of the patterns of magnetic striping provide evidence of their previous transform-fault activity.
Not all plate boundaries are as simple as the main types discussed above. In some regions, the boundaries are not well defined because the plate-movement deformation occurring there extends over a broad belt (called a plate-boundary zone). One of these zones marks the Mediterranean-Alpine region between the Eurasian and African Plates, within which several smaller fragments of plates (microplates) have been recognized. Because plate-boundary zones involve at least two large plates and one or more microplates caught up between them, they tend to have complicated geological structures and earthquake patterns.
We can measure how fast tectonic plates are moving today, but how do scientists know what the rates of plate movement have been over geologic time? The oceans hold one of the key pieces to the puzzle. Because the ocean-floor magnetic striping records the flip-flops in the Earth's magnetic field, scientists, knowing the approximate duration of the reversal, can calculate the average rate of plate movement during a given time span. These average rates of plate separations can range widely. The Arctic Ridge has the slowest rate (less than 2.5 cm/yr), and the East Pacific Rise near Easter Island, in the South Pacific about 3,400 km west of Chile, has the fastest rate (more than 15 cm/yr).
Evidence of past rates of plate movement also can be obtained from geologic mapping studies. If a rock formation of known age -- with distinctive composition, structure, or fossils -- mapped on one side of a plate boundary can be matched with the same formation on the other side of the boundary, then measuring the distance that the formation has been offset can give an estimate of the average rate of plate motion. This simple but effective technique has been used to determine the rates of plate motion at divergent boundaries, for example the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and transform boundaries, such as the San Andreas Fault.
Current plate movement can be tracked directly by means of ground-based or space-based geodetic measurements; geodesy is the science of the size and shape of the Earth. Ground-based measurements are taken with conventional but very precise ground-surveying techniques, using laser-electronic instruments. However, because plate motions are global in scale, they are best measured by satellite-based methods. The late 1970s witnessed the rapid growth of space geodesy, a term applied to space-based techniques for taking precise, repeated measurements of carefully chosen points on the Earth's surface separated by hundreds to thousands of kilometers. The three most commonly used space-geodetic techniques -- very long baseline interferometry (VLBI), satellite laser ranging (SLR), and the Global Positioning System (GPS) -- are based on technologies developed for military and aerospace research, notably radio astronomy and satellite tracking.
Among the three techniques, to date the GPS has been the most useful for studying the Earth's crustal movements. Twenty-one satellites are currently in orbit 20,000 km above the Earth as part of the NavStar system of the U.S. Department of Defense. These satellites continuously transmit radio signals back to Earth. To determine its precise position on Earth (longitude, latitude, elevation), each GPS ground site must simultaneously receive signals from at least four satellites, recording the exact time and location of each satellite when its signal was received. By repeatedly measuring distances between specific points, geologists can determine if there has been active movement along faults or between plates. The separations between GPS sites are already being measured regularly around the Pacific basin. By monitoring the interaction between the Pacific Plate and the surrounding, largely continental plates, scientists hope to learn more about the events building up to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in the circum-Pacific Ring of Fire. Space-geodetic data have already confirmed that the rates and direction of plate movement, averaged over several years, compare well with rates and direction of plate movement averaged over millions of years.