What causes tectonic plates to move?


Quick Answer

The three primary causes for tectonic plate movement are the convection of material in the mantle, gravity and the rotation of the planet. These forces cause each of the seven major plates and numerous other microplates to move independently of the others at a rate of a few centimeters per year.

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What causes tectonic plates to move?
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Full Answer

The most studied aspect of plate movement involves the large convection currents in the mantle. As energy is transferred throughout the molten levels of the mantle (asthenosphere), new material is pushed up towards the surface, moving the old rock out of the way. The emergence of this new land causes the plates to move where the material comes out.

The most easily recognizable example of this process occurs at the mid ocean ridges, where the plates on either side of the ridge are being pushed away from each other. The ridges where this new material emerges are higher in elevation than the surrounding areas, and gravity causes the older rock to fall down to the lower points, aiding in the movement of the plates.

As molten lava creates new oceanic crust and thermal convection causes cooler rock to sink, the coastal regions of the Earth are constantly losing land mass, while simultaneously gaining land mass in other areas. Mount Kilauea, an active volcano in Hawaii, is an example of this. Since 1983, approximately 500 acres of land have been added to the island by molten lava accumulation, according to the National Park Service.

Earth’s land masses move at an average rate of about 0.6 inch a year. The coast of California moves at a much faster speed of approximately 2 inches per year, causing the tectonic plates in this area to grind violently, resulting in frequent earthquakes.

According to About.com, the rotation of the Earth is also a contributor to the movement of the tectonic plates but is far less significant than either the convection of the mantle or the force of gravity.

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