Geologic Processes, Part 3: Plate Tectonics

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1 IDS 102 Name Background: Plate Tectonics and Continental drift Geologic Processes, Part 3: Plate Tectonics In 1912 a scientists named Alfred Wegener's suggested that the world s continent were once connected in one megacontinent, named Pangaea (examine the pictures below). Wegener found that large-scale geological features on separated continents often matched very closely when the continents were brought together. For example, the Appalachian mountains of eastern North America matched with the mountains in Scottish Highlands, and the rocks western South Africa were identical to those of the rocks in eastern Brazil. Wegener also found that the fossils found in a certain place often indicated a climate utterly different from the climate of today: for example, fossils of tropical plants, such as ferns and cycads, are found today on the Arctic island of Spitsbergen. All of these facts supported Wegener's theory, which he called "continental drift." (From Reaction to Wegener's theory was almost uniformly hostile at first, but as time progresses people began to accept that the continents had moved. By the late 1960s, the theory of plate tectonics was well supported and accepted by almost all geologists. The theory of Plate Tectonics proposes that the continents and ocean floor form solid plates, which "float" on the the underlying rock that is under such tremendous heat and pressure that it behaves as an extremely viscous liquid (this layer is called the asthenosphere ). What prompted the revival of continental drift? In large part it was increased exploration of the Earth's crust, notably the ocean floor, beginning in the 1950s and continuing on to the present day. Since Wegener's day, scientists have mapped and explored the great system of oceanic ridges, the sites of frequent earthquakes, where molten rock rises from below the crust and hardens into new crust. We now know that the farther away you travel from a ridge, the older the crust is, and the older the sediments on top of the crust are (go to to see a map of the age of the rocks at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean). The clear implication is that the ridges are the sites where plates are moving apart. Where plates collide, great mountain ranges may be pushed up, such as the Himalayas; or if one plate sinks below another, deep oceanic trenches and chains of volcanoes are formed. Earthquakes are by far most common along plate boundaries and rift zones: plotting the location of earthquakes allows seismologists to map plate boundaries and depths (go to to see a map of earthquakes compared to plate boundaries) It is now possible to measure the speed of continental plates extremely accurately, using satellite technology. This technique reveals that North America and Europe move apart 20mm (0.8 in) a year. Sources: & 1

2 Go to the site listed below for a detailed explanation of the different types of plate boundaries and answer the questions below ( For each types of boundaries listed below provide 1) a definition in your own words, 2) and example of a location in the world where this type of boundary is found: Divergent Boundary: Convergent Boundaries: Oceanic-continental convergence: Oceanic-oceanic convergence: Continental-continental convergence: Transform boundaries: What is the range of motion found at modern plate boundaries and how do we track current plate motion? All types of plate boundaries are associated with earthquakes, but only some types of boundaries are also associated with volcanoes. List the boundary types that have volcanoes below: 2

3 What is a hot spot and what type of geologic features do they produce? Give an example of a hot spot feature found in the ocean and one found on a continent: How many hot spot have been located around the world and where are the majority found? Part II: Reconstructing Long-Term Rates of Plate Motion: Below is a map of the Hawaiian Islands and the associated Emperor Seamount Chain (a chain of small islands and underwater mountains) that have been formed by volcanoes as the Pacific Plate passed over an active hot spot. Based on what you observed in the previous module about earthquake and volcanic activity in the state of Hawaii, exactly where is the hot spot currently located? 3

4 The map below shows an enlargement of the Hawaiian Islands and Emperor Seamount ridge. The southern end of the island of Hawaii currently sits over a mantle Hot Spot, which is the source of magma for the active volcanoes on Hawaii. The other islands in the island chain were also formed by volcanoes, but the volcanoes are not longer active because they have been moved away from the Hot Spot because of the movement of the Pacific Plate over time. These islands get progressively older as they move away from the Hot Spot. The age of the volcanoes can be used to reconstruct the rate at which the pacific plate has been moving. A color version of this map can be found at: Use the map on the previous page to fill in the table below. Table 1: Island Date of last volcanism (in millions of years) Hawaii modern 0 Maui 0.8 Oahu 3.7 Kauai 5.1 Midway 27.7 Distance from Hot Spot (use kilometers = km) What is the average rate of motion of the Pacific Plate in kilometers (km)/ year? Show your work. What is the average rate of motion of the Pacific Plate in centimeters (cm) per year? Remember that there are 100,000 cm in 1 km. Show your work. 4

5 On the World Ocean find the following island or seamount chains: 1) Hawaiian Island-Emperor Seamount chain; 2) Tuamotu Archipelago; 3) Austral Gilbert-Marshall Island chain. Each of these oceanic island/seamount chains was created by passing over a hot spot (Note an additional map is located at What do you notice about the linear orientation of all of these island chains? Compare the orientation of these island chains to the path of the Yellowstone hot spot (see diagram below). Speculate about what your observation mean for the speed and orientation of the movement of the Pacific and North American Plate For a color image go to 5

6 Reference map of the location of plate tectonic boundaries (from 6

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