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10.5: Mechanisms for Plate Motion

It has been often repeated in this text and elsewhere that convection of the mantle is critical to plate tectonics, and while this is almost certainly so, 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 (Figure 10.28). Some argue that the real answer lies somewhere in between.

Figure 10.5.1 Models for plate motion mechanisms [SE]

Kearey and Vine (1996)[1] have listed some compelling arguments in favour of the ridge-push/slab-pull model, 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.

In the ridge-push/slab-pull model, which is the one that has been adopted by most geologists working on plate-tectonic problems, the lithosphere is the upper surface of the convection cells, as is illustrated in Figure 10.5.2.

Figure 10.5.2 The ridge-push/slab-pull model for plate motion, in which the lithosphere is the upper surface of the convective systems. [SE]

Although ridge-push/slab-pull is the favoured 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.

[1] Kearey and Vine , 1996, Global Tectonics (2ed), Blackwell Science Ltd., Oxford