Q:

How far do tectonic plates move each year?

A:

Quick Answer

Earth has between 10 and 20 crustal plates, each moving at a different rate. The slowest is the Eurasian plate, which moves less than an inch per year, while the plate with fastest known movement is the Cocos plate, which grinds against the west coast of Central America at an estimated 8.55 inches per year.

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How far do tectonic plates move each year?
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Full Answer

The speed with which a plate moves against its neighbors is determined by the rate at which the magma in contact with the plate's underside carries it along. Tectonic plates are not pushed, as the scale of their movement is far too great for their rocks to withstand a lateral force that shoves them along in one direction. Rather, the plates are carried along by currents in the molten parts of the lithosphere that are difficult to detect from the surface.

The engine driving this process is the residual heat of the Earth's interior. This heat drives convection throughout the Earth's mantle and can have unpredictable consequences on the thin crust overtopping it. Near the end of the Mesozoic Era, for example, the landmass that would become India suddenly separated from the southern continent of Gondwanaland and traversed the ocean at nearly 8 inches per year until it crashed into Asia.

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Related Questions

  • Q:

    What causes the tectonic plates to move?

    A:

    Tectonic plates shift as a result of the intense heat at the Earth's core, which causes molten rock in the mantle layer to rise, while cooler rock near the surface sinks back down. This is a process referred to as thermal convection.

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  • Q:

    What drives plate tectonics?

    A:

    The plate tectonics theory suggests that the outer shell of the Earth's surface is split into a few plates that move along the mantle, forming a hard shell, with pressure from mid-ocean ridges and subduction zones causing the shifting in the plates. Mid-ocean ridges are the gaps that lie between the plates, much like the seams on a basketball. Magma oozes through these ridges, creating new crust on the ocean floor and pushing the plates apart, while subduction zones sit at the meeting point between plates. One slides under the other, pulling the crust down as it goes.

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  • Q:

    What is a lithospheric plate?

    A:

    Lithospheric plates are another name for tectonic plates, which are part of the Earth's uppermost layer, the crust. The term refers to the portions into which the crust is broken.

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  • Q:

    How is the Earth's crust related to tectonic movement?

    A:

    The Earth's crust is made up of a number of plates that sit on top of the mantle, which is made up of molten rock. The movement of these plates is called plate tectonics. Plate movement can, over time, cause mountains to form, volcanoes to erupt and earthquakes.

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