4.3 Mechanisms for Plate Motion

Modified from "Physical Geology" by Steven Earle*

In section 4.1 we learned that one of the reasons that Wegener’s ideas of continental drift were initially rejected by the scientific community was that he could not provide a plausible mechanism for plate motion. However, with all that we have learned about the processes occurring in the Earth’s interior since then, there is still some debate about the actual forces that make the plates move. One side in the argument holds that the plates are only moved by the traction caused by mantle convection. The other side holds that traction plays only a minor role and that two other forces, ridge push and slab pull, are more important. Some argue that the real answer lies somewhere in between.

To understand mantle convection, imagine a pot of water on a hot stove. The water at the bottom of the pot near the heat source becomes hot and expands, making it lighter (less dense) than the water above. The hot, low density water rises, and cooler, denser water sinks and flows in from the sides. This water then gets heated and rises, and the cycle continues. This creates a circular pattern of rising and sinking water called a convection cell. (To test this, try sprinkling a few flakes of spice in the center of a rapidly boiling pot of water. The flakes will move outwards to the edge of the pot as warmer water rises and pushes them aside).

Heat is continuously flowing outward from Earth’s interior, and the transfer of heat from the core to the mantle causes convection in the mantle (Figure 4.3.1). Even though the mantle material is essentially solid rock, it is sufficiently plastic (fluid) to slowly flow (at rates of centimeters per year) as long as a steady force is applied to it. This convection is a driving force for the movement of tectonic plates, as the horizontal movements of mantle under the crust drag the plates with them. At places where convection currents in the mantle are moving upward, new lithosphere forms and the plates move apart (diverge). Where two plates are converging (and the convective flow is downward), one plate will be subducted (pushed down) into the mantle beneath the other.


Figure 4.3.1 Convection cells in the mantle (By Surachit [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons).

The ridge push/slab pull model also relies on mantle convection, but in this case it is not simply the traction from the convection cell that moves the plates. In this model, plates move through a combination of pull from the weight of the subducting edge of the plates, and through the outward pushing of an ocean ridge where magma is rising and forming new crust (Figure 4.3.2).


Figure 4.3.2 Models for plate motion mechanisms (Steven Earle, “Physical Geology”).
Some compelling arguments in favor of the ridge-push/slab-pull model are as follows: (a) plates that are attached to subducting slabs (e.g., Pacific, Australian, and Nazca Plates) move the fastest, and plates that are not (e.g., North American, South American, Eurasian, and African Plates) move significantly slower; (b) in order for the traction model to apply, the mantle would have to be moving about five times faster than the plates are moving (because the coupling between the partially liquid asthenosphere and the plates is not strong), and such high rates of convection are not supported by geophysical models; and (c) although large plates have potential for much higher convection traction, plate velocity is not related to plate area. Although ridge-push/slab-pull is the favored mechanism for plate motion, it’s important not to underestimate the role of mantle convection. Without convection, there would be no ridges to push from because upward convection brings hot buoyant rock to surface. Furthermore, many plates, including our own North American Plate, move along nicely — albeit slowly — without any slab-pull happening.

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*”Physical Geology” by Steven Earle used under a CC-BY 4.0 international license. Download this book for free at http://open.bccampus.ca



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