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Geosciences LibreTexts

4.10: Plate Tectonic Mechanisms

  • Page ID
    5495
  • Overview

    The question still remains, why do tectonic plates move? The answer comes down to gravity and mantle convection. You have already studied in chapter two how the mantle flows through time creating convection currents. These convection currents flow underneath the plates and through friction pull them along at the surface as well as when they are subducted which is a force called slab suction. Related to this force is slab pull, which is a gravitational force pulling the cold subducting plate down into the mantle at a subduction zone. In addition, there is a force from potential energy at ocean ridges called ridge push. This is a gravitational force pushing down on the elevated ridge and, because of the plates' curvature, it results in a horizontal force pushing the plate along the earth’s surface. These forces all occur deep inside the Earth and operate on very large geographic scales making them difficult to measure. There are several competing models for the mechanisms behind plate motion, such that there are still some areas of debate surrounding the mechanics of plate tectonics which is why Plate Tectonics is a scientific theory. Documenting an event is much easier and more straightforward than explaining why it occurred.