Plate Tectonics—History of How it was Discovered (Educational)

Plate Tectonics—History of How it was Discovered (Educational)

Plate tectonics theory was not accepted for
centuries because no one could adequately answer the question, “What is the mechanism
that drives the plates?” In the late sixteenth century. Abraham Ortelius,
in compiling New World explorer maps noted that by carefully considering the coasts lines
of the Atlantic Ocean it appeared that the Americas had been torn away from Europe and
Africa by, he theorized, earthquakes and floods”. Over the next three centuries other proponents
of an original single continent included: Francois Paget who invoked the sinking of
the land between the continents to create the Atlantic Ocean;
Georges-Louis Leclerk who resurrected Ortelius’s theory of a great earthquake and floods pushing
the land apart, and finally Antonio Snider Pellegrini who proposed that
the shape of the continents, supported by fossil evidence argued for the origin of a
single continent which not only joined the continents across the Atlantic Ocean but also
included Australia. No one, however, could explain how the continents
moved. Bathymetric surveys in the following decades
unveiled an extensive submarine mountain ridge the length of the Atlantic Ocean, between
the continents. Meanwhile, seismic data began to reveal Earth’s
layers: a core, a crust-mantle boundary, and a thick outer layer called the lithosphere
that lay above a less-dense asthenosphere. In 1912 German meteorologist Alfred Wegener,
also intrigued by the fit of the edges of the continents, championed the concept of
“Continental Drift” based on his study of similar rock type, geological structures
and fossils on both sides of the Atlantic. To make it work, he hypothesized that the
mechanisms causing the drift might be the centrifugal force of the Earth’s rotation
or the change in its axis of rotation. Wegener also speculated that “the Mid-Atlantic Ridge,
is continuously tearing open and making space for fresh, relatively fluid and hot material
from depth.” His views were considered preposterous and
improbable, and rejected by most Earth scientists. Following the discovery of radioactivity in
1896, it became clear that Earth’s interior was heated by radioactive decay, and the insides
would be largely molten.  Indeed, by 1926 a liquid core was determined.
In 1927 geologist Arthur Holmes, studying radioactive decay, proclaimed that mantle
convection, was the answer to Wegener’s missing power source to drive Continental
Drift.  He based it on the fact that as a substance is heated, its density decreases
and rises to the surface until it cools, then sinks again.
But convection of the solid mantle alone was still unpalatable to most geoscientists.
Nuclear bomb testing in the 50’s motivated the establishment of the Worldwide Standardized
Seismograph Network to monitor explosions, prompting a greater concentration of seismograph
stations. The increased data allowed seismologists to precisely locate far more earthquakes revealing
that most occur in discrete areas: near trenches and along mid-ocean ridges.
Decades after Wegener’s death, geologist Marie Tharpe, left in the lab to examine data
from ocean-floor field surveys, theorized that the mid-ocean ridges appeared to be extensional
rift valleys formed by plate motion paving the way for Wegener’s continental drift
theory. Her colleague Bruce Heezen, initially skeptical, published her work in 1956 under
his own name, but ascribed the extension to an expanding Earth theory. It wouldn’t be
until the mid-sixties that he would accept Tharp’s interpretation of plate motion. 
Curiously, it was Harry Hess who, in 1962 was credited for recognizing that oceans did
grow from spreading ridges where new seafloor was created, and then moved away in both directions. He
also defined ocean trenches as locations where ocean floor was destroyed and recycled.
But he, too, lacked geophysical evidence to confirm this theory. 
Just one year later, this concept was supported by ocean-floor magnetic surveys that revealed
symmetrical patterns of magnetic striping on either side of the mid ocean ridges that were
found to be the same age at similar distances away from the ridge on each side.
Just one year later, this concept was supported by ocean-floor magnetic surveys that revealed
symmetrical patterns of magnetic striping on either side of the mid ocean ridges that
were found to be the same age at similar distances away from the ridge on each side.
While pondering the mystery of how volcanoes, such as the Hawaiian chain, could be so far
from spreading ridges or subduction zones, Tuzo-Wilson proposed the plates moved over
hotspots, and followed this breakthrough with the discovery that ocean ridges were connected
with transform faults. The science rapidly blossomed with the definition of the three
main plate boundary types: DIVERGENT margins where plates move apart, CONVERGENT margins
where plates push together at subduction zones or mountain ranges, and TRANSFORM margins
where plates move horizontally past each other). As geophysical evidence supporting plate tectonics
accumulated during the 1960’s, scientists revived Holmes’s theory of mantle convection as
a driving force for moving the plates. Mantle convection, assuredly plays a role,
but doesn’t explain how some plates creep along faster than the convective currents
beneath them. This led scientists to a fundamental force: Gravity. Gravity acts on the tectonic
plates resulting in what are now referred to as “ridge push” at the spreading ridges
and “slab pull” beneath subduction zones. This is an evolving science that not only
includes these three forces, but involves friction and much more,
leaving scientists to ponder: What will be the next tool that helps reveal
new facets of plate tectonics?

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About the Author: Oren Garnes


  1. Good video, thanks for producing this! I will share this with my structural geology students for discussion. I would suggest some expansions/modifications if there is ever a second edition made in the future. For one, it makes it seem like a lot of those early people were just as relevant as Wegener, which may not have been intentional but I think it comes across that way. Wegener was much more influential on this topic than anyone who came before him by a long shot. There were certainly some who supported Wegener in the 1920s, and even those who disagreed with him, many of them still took him quite seriously. A fuller treatment would be nice in my opinion. I would also like to see mention of the paleomagnetism of the 1950s, as it was known that the apparent polar wander paths for different continents did not match. The work of Benioff on seismic zones in the 1950s also was seminal. J Tuzo Wilson was the first to ever draw a map of Earth's tectonic plates, and his 1965 paper is the most clear crystallization of these ideas at that time. His work was mentioned but its importance could be elaborated. And I would like to have seen more on the critical papers of the late 60s – 70s, such as "tectonics on a sphere" from 1967, and the seminal work of Atwater in 1970, who first brought plate tectonic "on land" and out of the oceans.

  2. For initiation I consider the earth cooling with shrinking as the primary driving force causing cracks and plates to form. Iron a major element of earth has a high shrinkage rate cooling. You can overlay major deposits of iron and copper and find them mostly in coastal areas where prior to drift collisions one might think shrink and break and drift.

  3. Back in 1964, when I was in High School, I wrote a paper on Continental Drift, and it's causes. If I remember correctly, I saw an article in Scientific American, and it blew me away.

  4. Complicated history presented interestingly and in a nutshell! Wegener’s name is Veg-en-er, not Wag-ner.

    You should edit (or get a third party to edit) your intro before you publish it—it’s riddled with typos and inconsistencies that don’t do your presentation justice.

  5. Thank you for acknowledging Marie Tharp and the credit that was stolen from her. She is often left out of textbooks, but her work was so important in furthering our understanding!

  6. (Last sentence – "Leaving scientists to ponder what will be the next tool that helps reveal new facets of Plate Tectonics'.) Um.m.m.. Common sense maybe, that builds on observation that the geological structure of the Earth's crust represents the inscription of Earth's gravity and rotation (instead of theoretical "soup-in-a-pot", plates, and convection.

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