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What Drives Plate Motion, and How Fast Do Plates Move?

We've now discussed the many facets of plate tectonics theory but to complete the story, we need to address a major question: “What drives plate motion?” When geoscientists first proposed plate tectonics, they thought the process occurred simply because convective flow in the asthenosphere actively dragged plates along, as if the plates were simply rafts on a flowing river. Thus, early images depicting plate motion showed simple convection cells elliptical  flow paths in the asthenosphere. At first glance, this hypothesis looked pretty good. But, on closer examination it became clear that a model of simple convection cells carrying plates on their backs can’t explain the complex geometry of plate boundaries and the great variety of plate motions that we observe on the Earth. Researchers now prefer a model in which convection, ridge push, and slab pull all contribute to driving plates. Let’s look at each of these phenomena in turn.

Convection is involved in plate motions in two ways. Recall that, at a mid-ocean ridge, hot asthenosphere rises and then cools to form oceanic lithosphere which slowly moves away from the ridge until, eventually, it sinks back into the mantle at a trench. Since the material forming the plate starts out hot, cools, and then sinks, we can view the plate itself as the top of a convection cell and plate motion as a form of convection. But in this view, convection is effectively a consequence of plate motion, not the cause. Can convection actually cause plates to move? The answer may come from studies which demonstrate that the interior of the mantle, beneath the plates, is indeed convecting on a very broad scale. Specifically, geologists have found that there are places where deeper, hotter asthenosphere is rising or upwelling, and places where shallower, colder asthenosphere is sinking or downwelling. Such asthenospheric flow probably does exert a force on the base of plates. But the pattern of upwelling and downwelling on a global scale does not match the pattern of plate boundaries exactly. So, conceivably, asthenosphere-flow may either speed up or slow down plates depending on the orientation of the flow direction relative to the movement direction of the overlying plate.

Forces driving plate motions. Both ridge push and slab pull make plates move.

Ridge-push force develops simply because the lithosphere of mid-ocean ridges lies at a higher elevation than that of the adjacent abyssal plains (figure above a). To understand ridge-push force, imagine you have a glass containing a layer of water over a layer of honey. By tilting the glass momentarily and then returning it to its upright position, you can create a temporary slope in the boundary between these substances. While the boundary has this slope, gravity causes the weight of elevated honey to push against the glass adjacent to the side where the honey surface lies at lower elevation. The geometry of a midocean ridge resembles this situation, for sea floor of a midocean ridge is higher than sea floor of abyssal plains. Gravity causes the elevated lithosphere at the ridge axis to push on the lithosphere that lies farther from the axis, making it move away. As lithosphere moves away from the ridge axis, new hot asthenosphere rises to fill the gap. Note that the local upward movement of  asthenosphere beneath a mid-ocean ridge is a consequence of sea-floor spreading, not the cause.

Slab-pull force, the force that subducting, downgoing plates apply to oceanic lithosphere at a convergent margin, arises simply because lithosphere that was formed more than 10 million years ago is denser than asthenosphere, so it can sink into the asthenosphere (figure above b). Thus, once an oceanic plate starts to sink, it gradually pulls the rest of the plate along behind it, like an anchor pulling down the anchor line. This “pull” is the slab-pull force.

The Velocity of Plate Motions

Relative plate velocities: The blue arrows show the rate and direction at which the plate on one side of the boundary is moving with respect to the plate on the other side. The length of an arrow represents the velocity. Absolute plate velocities: The red arrows show the velocity of the plates with respect to a fixed point in the mantle.

How fast do plates move? It depends on your frame of reference. To illustrate this concept, imagine two cars speeding in the same direction down the highway. From the viewpoint of a tree along the side of the road, Car A zips by at  100 km an hour, while Car B moves at 80 km an hour. But relative to Car B, Car A moves at only 20 km an hour. Geologists use two different frames of reference for describing plate velocity. If we describe the movement of Plate A with respect to Plate B, then we are speaking about relative plate velocity. But if we describe the movement of both plates relative to a fixed location in the mantle below the plates, then we are speaking of absolute plate velocity (figure above).

To determine relative plate motions, geoscientists measure the distance of a known magnetic anomaly from the axis of a mid-ocean ridge and then calculate the velocity of a plate relative to the ridge axis by applying this equation: plate velocity distance from the anomaly to the ridge axis divided by the age of the anomaly (velocity, by definition, is distance wtime). The velocity of the plate on one side of the ridge relative to the plate on the other is twice this value.

To estimate absolute plate motions, we can assume that the position of a mantle plume does not change much for a long time. If this is so, then the track of hot-spot volcanoes on the plate moving over the plume provides a record of the plate’s absolute velocity and indicates the direction of movement. (In reality, plumes are not completely fixed; geologists use other, more complex methods to calculate absolute plate motions.)

Working from the calculations described above, geologists have determined that plate motions on Earth today occur at rates of about 1 to 15 cm per year about the rate that your fingernails grow. But these rates, though small, can yield  large displacements given the immensity of geologic time. At a  rate of 10 cm per year, a plate can move 100 km in a million years! Can we detect such slow rates? Until the last decade, the answer was no. Now the answer is yes, because of satellites orbiting the Earth with global positioning system (GPS) technology. Automobile drivers use GPS receivers to find their destinations, and geologists use them to monitor plate motions. If we calculate carefully enough, we can detect displacements of millimeters per year. In other words, we can now see the plates move this observation serves as the ultimate proof of plate tectonics.

Due to plate tectonics, the map of Earth‘s surface slowly changes. Here we see the assembly, and later the breakup, of Pangaea during the past 400 million years.

Taking into account many data sources that define the motion of plates, geologists have greatly refined the image of continental drift that Wegener tried so hard to prove nearly a century ago. We can now see how the map of our planet’s surface has evolved radically during the past 400 million years (figure above), and even before.

Credits: Stephen Marshak (Essentials of Geology)

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