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Tectonic Plates and Plate Boundaries

The Earth’s outer shell, the lithosphere, consisting of the crust and uppermost mantle, is divided into a patchwork of large tectonic plates that move slowly relatively to each other. There are 7-8 major plates and many minor plates. Varying between 0 to 100mm per year, the movement of a plate is driven by convection in the underlying hot and viscous mantle.

Earthquakes, volcanic activity, mountain-building, and oceanic trench formation occur along plate boundaries in zones that may be anything from a few kilometres to a few hundred kilometres wide. To watch a simulated fly-by along New Zealand's plate boundary check out this video.

Tectonic plates of the Earth. Arrows pointing towards one another indicate a convergent boundary which arrows pointing away indicate a divergent boundary.

There are three main types of plate boundaries:

1. Convergent boundaries: where two plates are colliding.

Subduction zones occur when one or both of the tectonic plates are composed of oceanic crust. The denser plate is subducted underneath the less dense plate. The plate being forced under is eventually melted and destroyed.

i. Where oceanic crust meets ocean crust
Island arcs and oceanic trenches occur when both of the plates are made of oceanic crust. Zones of active seafloor spreading can also occur behind the island arc, known as back-arc basins. These are often associated with submarine volcanoes.

ii. Where oceanic crust meets continental crust
The denser oceanic plate is subducted, often forming a mountain range on the continent. The Andes is an example of this type of collision.

iii. Where continental crust meets continental crust
Both continental crusts are too light to subduct so a continent-continent collision occurs, creating especially large mountain ranges. The most spectacular example of this is the Himalayas.

2. Divergent boundaries – where two plates are moving apart.

The space created can also fill with new crustal material sourced from molten magma that forms below. Divergent boundaries can form within continents but will eventually open up and become ocean basins.

i. On land
Divergent boundaries within continents initially produce rifts, which produce rift valleys.

ii. Under the sea
The most active divergent plate boundaries are between oceanic plates and are often called mid-oceanic ridges.

3. Transform boundaries – where plates slide passed each other.

The relative motion of the plates is horizontal. They can occur underwater or on land, and crust is neither destroyed nor created.

Because of friction, the plates cannot simply glide past each other. Rather, stress builds up in both plates and when it exceeds the threshold of the rocks, the energy is released – causing earthquakes.