It’s easy to believe that the world is just an enormous solid object, however, that’s far from the case and the truth is much more complex and fragmented than many people know or expect.
The truth is that the world’s surface is split into many different plates, which are known as tectonic plates, and these enormous plates are what make up the world’s surface.
The terrifying thing about these various different plates is that they aren’t fixed in place.
They move, and although they don’t move perceptibly to us, they move nonetheless and the repercussions of this are felt in many ways, from major disasters such as Tsunamis and earthquakes to ancient mountain ranges and volcanoes.
These phenomena are caused by the plates as they move around and come into contact with each other.
The sheer size and mass of this continent, globe-spanning plates causes apocalyptic amounts of energy to be released, and they are constantly rubbing against each other, passing over and above each other.
There are certain areas of the world that are relatively inactive or stable tectonically speaking, however, various parts of the world are incredibly tectonically active, particularly along what is known as fault lines, or the key areas where different tectonic plates are in contact with each other and are interacting.
Some examples of these places are the Pacific Ocean, particularly near to Japan, as well as the west coast of the United States.
There are various phenomena that people in these regions will have to deal with as a consequence of tectonic activity, from Tsunamis in Japan, the most recent and famous example being the one that caused the Fukushima Nuclear meltdown, to the earthquakes that Californians often have to deal with.
The Earth has roughly 12 major tectonic plates, and several more minor tectonic plates and all of these are in motion and in contact with other plates in some capacity, and there are various ways the plates interact.
What happens when tectonic plates shift?
The consequences of plate tectonics can be an annoyance at best, or utterly catastrophic at worst.
When plates shift they will very often collide with other plates, or spread apart from other plates which cause various different results.
The most well-known and common result of tectonic shift is an earthquake, which is a phenomenon where the earth shudders violently beneath us, often causing massive infrastructural damage in its worst cases, and even in more minor cases also.
Earthquakes can happen in varying severities and are measured using highly sensitive global detectors which use the famous Richter scale, to determine how violent the earthquake is, and thus give an indication of how major the tectonic activity has been.
The Richter scale ranges from 1.0 to 9.0+ and there is a range of different severities along this scale. Microquakes are typically around 1.0 and are very rarely felt or noticed by most people, and can only be detected by the specialized monitoring systems of seismologists.
On the other hand, quakes of 8 or above mean major damage to structures will have occurred, leading many to be destroyed across a vast area, and the quakes will have been felt by many.
9.0 is a rating that categorizes near-total destruction in the places where the quakes are felt, rendering enormous and irreversible damage to infrastructure and a likely permanent change to local ground topography.
There are other consequences to tectonic activity, however, and one of these are volcanoes exploding, or the escape of molten lava from below the Earth’s crust.
Another secondary result of tectonic activity is Tsunami’s which occur when earthquakes and other tectonic activity happen deep beneath the sea.
As seawater rushes into new gaps in the Earth’s crust or is forced away by the appearance of new underwater volcanoes, seawater is moved in colossal amounts leading to various devastating disasters such as the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, as well as the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami, which are some of the most recent and devastating examples of the destruction tectonic shift can cause.
What are the tectonic plates?
Tectonic plates are essentially a part of the Earth’s topmost layer, or crust, formed mostly of various rocks and minerals in varying proportions and concentrations.
The 7 major tectonic plates and 8 minor ones are of various different sizes, but the biggest are the Antarctic plate, the Eurasian Plate, and the North American plate.
They range in thickness but average around 125km in thickness, being shallower at the bottom of the ocean and thicker where there are mountains.
Are the plates still shifting?
Yes, the plates are still shifting, by varying amounts depending on their relationship with the other plates around them and how they are moving against each other.
While this may seem quite terrifying, it’s actually good news and indicates that our planet is ‘alive’.
Geological and tectonic activity is the hallmark of a planet that is still working in the deep places we can’t see, such as the Earth’s core and mantle, where it is theorized many essential things occur to make the Earth habitable.
While its not certain exactly how these things work, it’s believed that the Earth’s electromagnetic shield (that protects us from cosmic radiation and the most damaging of the sun’s rays and flare-ups) is created by the vastly complex and immense tectonic activity and other phenomena that occur deep within the Earth.
So, the plates are still moving as these processes continue to happen, and it’s actually a good thing that they continue to do so.
Tectonically inactive planets in other parts of the solar system or indeed the universe at large are often considered to be dead or dormant plants that for some reason or another are no longer sustaining any sort of tectonic activity of any kind.
How long do tectonic plates last?
While Earth’s geological engine is critical to our survival, it may not necessarily last forever.
It is believed that tectonics may halt on Earth in some 1.45 billion years, which would spell bad news for anyone still living on Earth by that point.
While this technically means that tectonics could end at this time, functionally speaking and in human terms, 1.45 billion years is pretty much forever, as far as most of our species would be concerned!
For now, however, the tectonic plates show very little chance of changing significantly and will continue to move very slowly against each other for hundreds of years, and while the activity may cease, the plates themselves will still exist in some capacity, seized up and broken in place along with the world’s dead geological engine.