Direction of Plate Movement
Country: United States
Date: February 2008
I have been taught that the boundaries of Earth push, pull, and
slide, but there is nothing about a plate moving in one certain direction or
if the plate in different directions. This makes me wonder, do the plates move
one certain direction and also, what causes move the plates?
There are some maps available which show the directions of plate movements.
The mechanism for movement is complex, but scientists believe that the basic
forces behind movements involve convection currents in the mantle. Here are
a couple of web sites that may help:
Note that the plate movement maps in these sites are large-scale, and do not
show many of the small-scale, very complex movements in some parts of the world.
If you do a search on the Internet under “plate tectonics,” you will find many
sites that may help you understand this fascinating topic.
The plates are called that because they act as if each one were a separate
piece of crust. Plates can move in a straight line and can also spin. We
can actually measure the plates moving by bouncing laser beams off the moon
and we have found that plates moves about as fast as your fingernail grows.
The plates move against each other but are not all heading in the same
Exactly how the plates are moved is a question that has not been completely
answered but we are pretty sure it is movement in the mantle, the layer
between Earth’s crust and the core.
The crust of the Earth is said to be made up of a number of Plates, which are
composed of two types of material - which form different layer types. Oceanic
layers are thin, are relatively dense, and make up the floor of the oceans.
Continental layers are much thicker, but are composed of lighter material
(relatively speaking). A single plate may have both oceanic and continental
layers adjoining. There are seven large plates and a number of smaller ones.
These plates move, and as they do, the edges bump into each other.
If an oceanic plate collides with a continental plate, the heavier oceanic
layer goes underneath the continent, and we get a subduction zone, usually
with a deep ocean trench (See Marianas trench).
If a continent collides with a continent, neither wants to go underneath so you
get a huge crumpling zone, and the material gets compressed and piles higher and
higher (See Himalayas)
Do they all move in the same direction? - NO. Each plate moves in a different
direction, but that also means that no plate can move in two directions - It moves
as a single piece.
What drives all this movement? Mid Ocean volcanic ridges. If you look at a good
atlas, or a globe, you will see a bumpy line, running down the middle of the
Pacific Ocean. This is a mid ocean ridge, and it is actually a huge volcano (or
series of volcanoes) in the shape of a slit. Lava from the volcanoes oozes out
onto the ocean floor, pushing the two oceanic plates apart. This means that one
half of the Pacific Ocean is moving toward Japan - where it gets pushed underneath.
The other half is being pushed toward America, and the far edge of that plate is
trying to go underneath and slide past the Western edge of America - and this is
why California has so many earthquakes.
The Wikipedia Article on Plate Tectonics is a good place to begin your further
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Update: June 2012