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What are Tectonic Plates?

Michael Anissimov
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Tectonic plates are large plates of rock that make up the foundation of the Earth's crust and the shape of the continents. The tectonic plates comprise the bottom of the crust and the top of the Earth's mantle. There are ten major plates on Earth and many more minor ones. They float on a plastic-like part of the Earth's mantle called the asthenosphere. The plates are most famously known for being the source of earthquakes.

The tectonic plates are about 100 km (60 miles) in thickness, with continental plates tending to be thicker than oceanic ones. The composure of the two types of plate is also quite different. Oceanic plates consist of thicker basaltic rocks, compressed by the pressure of kilometers of water. Contintental plates have a lower average density, containing granitic rocks with a heavy composition of aluminum and silica.

The mantle underneath the tectonic plates is constantly recirculating, causing the plates to float around slowly in a process called tectonic drift. This process was described well by the theory of plate tectonics, which solved several scientific dilemmas about the distribution of species when it was introduced. When plates push up against each other, they create mountain ranges and volcanoes. Mt. Everest was created in this way.

Because the plates are so large, each wraps over a considerable portion of the Earth's surface, making them curved. This is a different shape than the flatness the word "plate" suggests.

Over time, plate tectonics has caused the world's continents to be reshaped. Every continent on Earth was once part of an ancient supercontinent known as Pangaea, and Antarctica was once located in a temperate climate. Marine fossils can be found on the peaks of the world's tallest mountains. The tectonic plates continue to move slowly, but it is unlikely that their movement will cause the world's face to change more rapidly than the growing technological influence of mankind will. One day the plates' great momentum and pressure might even be used as a source of geological energy.

All Things Nature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All Things Nature contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By anon327430 — On Mar 27, 2013

How come the continental shelf floats on top?

By anon255704 — On Mar 19, 2012

I am Alicia. I am reporting from a devastating earthquake that just happened in Kyrgyzstan. I love that place because my uncle lives there, but he died by jumping out of the window from a two-story high building.

By anon242674 — On Jan 24, 2012

Wow. This is very good. I used some info and it was totally understandable!

By dwyerbr — On Oct 31, 2011

what do tectonic plates have to do with earthquakes?

what role in an earthquake do tectonic plates have?

By anon191971 — On Jun 30, 2011

how do tectonic plates move?

By anon167462 — On Apr 12, 2011

tectonic plates have nothing to do with oil so don't panic they slide on molten rock and all they have to do with oil is plate movement can cause fold rock which can trap oil as in the persian gulf or near the caspian sea near baku in Azerbaijan.

And they move in any direction, mainly horizontal, but as far up and down as Mt. Everest and the Marianas trench.

By anon161988 — On Mar 22, 2011

why did they call them tectonic plates?

By anon158372 — On Mar 07, 2011

Does the rubbing together of tectonic plates cause a Tsunami? What other things does it cause?

By anon147158 — On Jan 28, 2011

What is the evidence of the theory of Tectonic Plates?

By anon146682 — On Jan 27, 2011

If they keep raping this planet of its oil these plates will certainly reorganise this planet after major eruptions. It's the oil in the earth and oceans that keeps them slowly moving so as not to seize up, creating disasters!

By anon127259 — On Nov 15, 2010

What are the main major tectonic plates?

By anon127214 — On Nov 15, 2010

How are the tectonic plates related to the formation of the Hawaiian Island chain?

By anon113452 — On Sep 24, 2010

Thanks you so much this will help my test!

By anon106515 — On Aug 26, 2010

did you know that tectonic plates only move a few centimeters prayers? it grows as fast as your fingernail grows.

By anon103819 — On Aug 14, 2010

There are three types of tectonic plates :




Constructive plates: When two plates move towards each other, the gap left between two is then filled with

magma, rising up from the hot interior of earth. Finally, the lava flows on earth's surface, forming up volcanoes and new land, hence named a constructive plate boundary.

Destructive plates: When two plates move towards each other, one comes under other and is destroyed. Hence, they are named destructive boundaries.

Conservative plates: When two plates move against each other at different speeds and the stress is built up,

which releases occasionally as sudden movements of the surface, creating faults in the surface and causing earthquakes.

Hope you all will understand. It's very easy.

By anon100234 — On Jul 29, 2010

thank you for giving me information.

By anon94097 — On Jul 07, 2010

thank you very much. it really helped me a lot. wonderful site.

By anon89422 — On Jun 10, 2010

this is a great site. it has everything you need to know. well, almost everything.

By anon88615 — On Jun 06, 2010

How do the tectonic plates form the continental shapes? Doesn't mention it there.

By anon87416 — On May 30, 2010

Tectonic plates move in all sorts of directions, that is why mountains are created. The tectonic plates crash into one another and the rock is pushed upwards.

By anon83725 — On May 12, 2010

how many inches do the tectonics move in 20 years?

By anon83045 — On May 09, 2010

thanks a lot. it really helped.

By anon82608 — On May 06, 2010

Thank you, author, for this fact-filled article. It was very helpful.

By anon80482 — On Apr 27, 2010

What ways can they interact?

By anon76161 — On Apr 09, 2010

Thanks for all the information. This information really helped me out a lot. --jalisa1232

By anon72094 — On Mar 21, 2010

how do tectonic plates move? Please explain, or tell me about the source from where i can get the answer. thanks.

By anon65943 — On Feb 16, 2010

Giving that plates are moving in either direction, at a known distance, would we be able to harness this energy.

By anon62924 — On Jan 29, 2010

They move side to side, back and forward, all various ways. Slightly. This is called tectonic flow or something like that (forgotten). Each tectonic plate moves in their own direction.

Which part are the tectonic plates in? It isn't in anything, it is on top of the earth crust.

And a Tectonic plate doesn't move very fast, actually depends on various things.

Fact: Mount Everest was made by tectonic plates.

By anon61353 — On Jan 19, 2010

what part of the earth are the plates in? the crust?

By anon60333 — On Jan 13, 2010

How fast does a tectonic plates move and which way does a tectonic plate move?

By AnissimovM — On May 26, 2008

They move in different directions.

By anon12808 — On May 14, 2008

Which Direction do tectonic plates move in? Do they move in all different directions?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All Things Nature contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics,...
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