الخميس، 20 مارس، 2014

Research of plate tectonic

Research of plate tectonic

What is a tectonic plate?
A tectonic plate (also called lithospheric plate) is a massive, irregularly shaped slab of solid rock, generally composed of both continental and oceanic lithosphere. Plate size can vary greatly, from a few hundred to thousands of kilometers across; the Pacific and Antarctic Plates are among the largest. Plate thickness also varies greatly, ranging from less than 15 km for young oceanic lithosphere to about 200 km or more for ancient continental lithosphere (for example, the interior parts of North and South America).

How do these massive slabs of solid rock float despite their tremendous weight? The answer lies in the composition of the rocks. Continental crust is composed of granitic rocks which are made up of relatively lightweight minerals such as quartz and feldspar. By contrast, oceanic crust is composed of basaltic rocks, which are much denser and heavier. The variations in plate thickness are nature's way of partly compensating for the imbalance in the weight and density of the two types of crust. Because continental rocks are much lighter, the crust under the continents is much thicker (as much as 100 km) whereas the crust under the oceans is generally only about 5 km thick. Like icebergs, only the tips of which are visible above water, continents have deep "roots" to support their elevations.

Most of the boundaries between individual plates cannot be seen, because they are hidden beneath the oceans. Yet oceanic plate boundaries can be mapped accurately from outer space by measurements from GEOSAT satellites. Earthquake and volcanic activity is concentrated near these boundaries. Tectonic plates probably developed very early in the Earth's 4.6-billion-year history, and they have been drifting about on the surface ever since-like slow-moving bumper cars repeatedly clustering together and then separating.

Like many features on the Earth's surface, plates change over time. Those composed partly or entirely of oceanic lithosphere can sink under another plate, usually a lighter, mostly continental plate, and eventually disappear completely. This process is happening now off the coast of Oregon and Washington. The small Juan de Fuca Plate, a remnant of the formerly much larger oceanic Farallon Plate, will someday be entirely consumed as it continues to sink beneath the North American Plate


Plate Tectonics Theory:Development of

The beginnings of the theory of plate tectonics date to around 1920, when Alfred Wegener, the German meteorologist and geophysicist, presented the first detailed accounts of how today's continents were once a large supercontinent that slowly drifted to their present positions. Others brought forth evidence, but plate tectonics processes and continental drift did not attract wide interest until the late 1950s, when scientists found the alignment of magnetic particles in rock responded to the earth's magnetic field of that time. Plotting paleomagnetic polar changes showed that all continents had moved across the earth over time.
Synthesized from these findings and others in geology, oceanography, and geophysics, plate tectonics theory holds that the lithosphere, the hard outer layer of the earth, is divided into about 7 major plates and perhaps as many as 12 smaller plates, c.60 mi (100 km) thick, resting upon a lower soft layer called the asthenosphere. Because the sides of a plate are either being created or destroyed, its size and shape are continually changing. Such active plate tectonics make studying global tectonic history, especially for the ocean plates, difficult for times greater than 200 million years ago. The continents, which are c.25 mi (40 km) thick, are embedded in some of the plates, and hence move as the plates move about on the earth's surface.
The mechanism moving the plates is at present unknown, but is probably related to the transfer of heat energy or convection within the earth's mantle. If true, and the convection continues, the earth will continue to cool. This will eventually halt the mantle's motion allowing the crust to stabilize, much like what has happened on other planets and satellites in the solar system, such as Mars and the moon.

Plate Tectonics: The Rocky History of an Idea  

Close examination of a globe often results in the observation that most of the continents seem to fit together like a puzzle: the west African coastline seems to snuggle nicely into the east coast of South America and the Caribbean sea; and a similar fit appears across the Pacific.  The fit is even more striking when the submerged continental shelves are compared rather than the coastlines.  In 1912 Alfred Wegener (1880-1930) noticed the same thing and proposed that the continents were once compressed into a single protocontinent which he called Pangaea (meaning "all lands"), and over time they have drifted apart into their current distribution. He believed that Pangaea was intact until the late  Carboniferous period, about 300 million years ago, when it began to break up and drift apart. However, Wegener's hypothesis lacked a geological mechanism to explain how the continents could drift across the earths surface as he proposed.
Searching for evidence to further develop his theory of continental drift, Wegener came across a paleontological paper suggesting that a land bridge had once connected Africa with Brazil. This proposed land bridge was an attempt to explain the well known paleontological observation that the same fossilized plants and animals from the same time period were found in South America and Africa.  The same was true for fossils found in Europe and North America, and Madagascar and India.  Many of these organisms could not have traveled across the vast oceans that currently exist. Wegener's drift theory seemed more plausible than land bridges connecting all of the continents. But that in itself was not enough to support his idea. Another observation favoring continental drift was the presence of evidence for continental glaciation in the Pensylvanian period. Striae left by the scraping of glaciers over the land surface indicated that Africa and South America had been close together at the time of this ancient ice age. The same scraping patterns can be found along the coasts of South America and South Africa.
Wegener's drift hypothesis also provided an alternate explanation for the formation of mountains (orogenesis). The theory being discussed during his time was the "Contraction theory" which suggested that the planet was once a molten ball and in the process of cooling the surface cracked and folded up on itself.  The big problem with this idea was that all mountain ranges should be approximately the same age, and this was known not to be true.  Wegener's explanation was that as the continents moved, the leading edge of the continent would encounter resistance and thus compress and fold upwards forming mountains near the leading edges of the drifting continents.  The Sierra Nevada mountains on the Pacific coast of North America and the Andes on the coast of South America were cited.  Wegener also suggested that India drifted northward into the asian continent thus forming the Himalayas.

Plate Tectonics, the Cause of Earthquakes
The plates consist of an outer layer of the Earth, the lithosphere, which is cool enough to behave as a more or less rigid shell. Occasionally the hot asthenosphere of the Earth finds a weak place in the lithosphere to rise buoyantly as a plume, or hotspot. The satellite image below shows the volcanic islands of the Galapagos hotspot.
Only lithosphere has the strength and the brittle behavior to fracture in an earthquake.

The map below locates earthquakes around the globe. They are not evenly distributed; the boundaries between the plates grind against each other, producing most earthquakes. So the lines of earthquakes help define the plates:

Earthquake occurrence in different plate tectonic settings:

The map below of Earth's solid surface shows many of the features caused by plate tectonics. The oceanic ridges are the asthenospheric spreading centers, creating new oceanic crust. Subduction zones appear as deep oceanic trenches. Most of the continental mountain belts occur where plates are pressing against one another. The white squares locate examples given here of the different tectonic and earthquake environments.

There are three main plate tectonic environments: extensional, transform, and compressional. Plate boundaries in different localities are subject to different inter-plate stresses, producing these three types of earthquakes. Each type has its own special hazards.

At spreading ridges, or similar extensional boundaries, earthquakes are shallow, aligned strictly along the axis of spreading, and show an extensional mechanism. Earthquakes in extensional environments tend to be smaller than magnitude 8. (Click here for an explanation of earthquake magnitude).
A close-up topographic picture of the Juan de Fuca spreading ridge, offshore of the Pacific Northwest, shows the turned-up edges of the spreading center. As crust moves away from the ridge it cools and sinks. The lateral offsets in the ridge are joined by transform faults.
The main features of plate tectonics are:
  • The Earth's surface is covered by a series of crustal plates.
  • The ocean floors are continually moving, spreading from the center, sinking at the edges, and being regenerated.
  • Convection currents beneath the plates move the crustal plates in different directions.
  • The source of heat driving the convection currents is radioactivity deep in the Earths mantle.

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