Taxonomy term

plate tectonics

Peeling North American Plate causing East Coast earthquakes

On Aug. 23, 2011, a magnitude-5.8 earthquake struck near Mineral, Va., shaking the Piedmont region and damaging several historic buildings in Washington, D.C. The quake caught many people by surprise because the eastern U.S. lies in the interior of the North American Plate, more than 1,500 kilometers from the nearest plate boundary. In a new study, researchers peering beneath the southeastern portion of the North American Plate may have found an explanation for why parts of the region experience more quakes than expected.

31 Aug 2016

Mantle convection makes Earth's crust bob

From the earthquake-prone Himalayas and Andes to the volcanically active “Ring of Fire” around the Pacific, the boundaries of Earth’s tectonic plates are often sites of considerable geologic activity. In contrast, the interiors of tectonic plates have been thought to be relatively rigid and quiet.

18 Aug 2016

Lack of fungi did not lead to copious Carboniferous coal

The Carboniferous Period is famous for supplying Earth with an abundance of coal deposits. According to one hypothesis, the formation of all this coal is explained by a proposed 60-million-year gap, or lag, between the spread of the forests globally about 360 million years ago and the rise of wood-eating microbes and fungi that could break down tough plant matter. But a new study refutes this idea, instead attributing the Carboniferous’ copious coal to the consolidation of the supercontinent Pangea.

25 May 2016

Reading the ridges: Are climate and the seafloor connected?

New research suggests that midocean ridge volcanoes respond to variations in sea level, potentially leaving topographic records of past glaciations in the form of abyssal hills. But could those volcanoes also influence the climate cycles that drive sea-level changes?

25 Apr 2016

Down to Earth With: Tectonicist Eldridge Moores

When Eldridge Moores was 10 years old, his family lived in Crown King, Ariz., a tiny, remote mining settlement high in the rugged Yavapai Mountains northwest of Phoenix. Money was tight and his family rarely traveled, so Moores vividly remembers a holiday road trip to visit his father’s relatives near San Francisco. The Bay Area left a deep impression on Moores, and, at the end of the journey, upon reaching the first of four switchbacks on the narrow dirt track that led up to Crown King, Moores vehemently pronounced that he would do everything he could to get out of there.

15 Apr 2016

An absentee note for ancient blueschist: Lack of metamorphic rock does not date onset of plate tectonics

Plate tectonics is a defining characteristic of our 4.5-billion-year-old home planet, responsible for earthquakes, mountain building, and much of the evolution of the planet’s oceans and atmosphere. But when this formative process began is a mystery. Some researchers have pointed to the lack of blueschist — a type of metamorphic rock that only forms in tectonically driven subduction zones — in rocks older than 800 million years as a clue to when subduction began. But a new study rules this option out, offering a novel explanation for the rock’s absence in ancient rocks.

05 Apr 2016

The question of mantle plumes

The mantle plume hypothesis is the most widely held explanation for volcanism far from plate boundaries, like Hawaii and Yellowstone. But some researchers question whether mantle plumes even exist.

20 Dec 2015

Did crustal chemistry buoy Western Plains?

The mighty mountains of the American West may captivate artists and adventurers with their rugged allure, but it’s the humble High Plains that intrigue certain geologists. For decades, scientists have puzzled over the origins of this vast plateau, which stretches for more than 500 kilometers east of the Rockies.
12 Jul 2015

Down to Earth With: Geophysicist Peter Molnar

As a graduate student in geophysics at Columbia University in the late 1960s, Peter Molnar — who had studied physics as an undergraduate — decided to sit in on a geology course for a term. When the professor began discussing cratons one day, Molnar raised his hand and asked what a craton was. Molnar still remembers the strange look he received, as if the professor were wondering, “Who let this guy in?”
20 Jun 2015

Getting to the bottom of a tectonic plate

Earth’s rigid, brittle lithosphere is broken into seven major plates, as well as many minor plates, which ride along atop a ductile layer of the upper mantle called the asthenosphere. For all we know about Earth’s cracked outer shell, however, a clear picture of the lithosphere-asthenosphere boundary at the bottom of the plates has proved elusive. Now, new research using explosives to image the oceanic plate dipping beneath New Zealand’s North Island is helping to blast away some of the uncertainty about this boundary by giving scientists a sharper look at a piece of the planet’s tectonic underbelly.

08 Jun 2015