What Drives the Process of Plate Tectonics?

The San Andreas Fault in California lies on a plate.
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Scientists claim the theory of plate tectonics has caused the movement of continents ever since they were formed. The theory of plate tectonics states sections of the Earth's crust are pushing against each other miles below the Earth's surface, causing earthquakes, volcanoes and the movement of the continents. Approximately 30 plates are mapped out throughout the world. The plates consist of the Earth's crust and of the mantle, which is a thick layer of hot rock. Below that lies a sea of magma.


Lava moving underneath the Earth's crust is driving plate tectonics. This lava moves at an extremely slow pace. As the magma boils, it rises to the surface and starts to cool. At that point it sinks back to the pot of boiling lava and is heated again as it rises and then falls again. The process, which is referred to as convective flow, causes the plates to move apart.


The core, mantle and crust were formed billions of years ago when the Earth was formed. Much of the heat that causes this movement is from the energy that was produced by various rocks that collided during the formation. Radioactive material that is found in the Earth's depths are also causing the heat. Uranium and other radioactive elements are releasing heat as they decay. This also contributes to the Earth's surface temperature.


Volcanoes are a direct result of plate tectonics. As the heavier plates move under the lighter plates and plunge toward the center of the Earth, they are heated and become magma. This heating process causes carbon dioxide that forces itself up. When it reaches the Earth's surface, it erupts in a volcano and the gas is released into the atmosphere. The temperature of the lava can reach 9,032 degrees Fahrenheit.

Continental Drift

Plate tectonics have caused a former continent known as Pangaea to pull apart. This super continent contained all the continents that are mapped today, though they are in a much different position than 200 million years ago when Pangaea existed. By observing a map, you can see where the continents fit into place. Like a puzzle, South America fit onto the west coast of Africa and North America sat on top along with Europe. Antarctica was with Australia at the bottom and Asia hooked up to the east coast of Europe at the top.