Plate tectonics: a little of everything

Overall, I consider myself a generalist (despite that I’m going for a PhD right now). That means I like to know at least a little bit about a lot of different things. There are also specialists, or people who know a lot about one or a few related things. I’m also a bit of a specialist in that I’m seeking to know a lot about my dissertation research but my dissertation research combines many concepts that span multiple disciplines.

For example, I use computers to understand how plate motion affects the outermost layer of the earth. That means I need to know about computers, software, and coding in addition to the geological concepts that I use. Further, the geological concepts I need to know combine mathematics, physics, chemistry, and materials science. The physics of the processes that result in mountains are described mathematically using numerical models for heat and material transport. Also, the way stress affects rocks (which occurs due to plate motion) depends on chemistry or mineral composition and is a function of temperature. Then there’s the geology which incorporates a lot of subdisciplines like computational geodynamics, structural geology, isotope geochemistry, geomorphology, seismology, and mineral physics, to name a few.

So when people ask me what I do, I often have a different answer depending on the situation and the person asking. Basically, I have a lot of options for responses. But if I want to put it into one term: I say I’m a tectonicist.

It works because Plate Tectonics is the grand, unifying theory of geology. That is, it ties together all of the aspects of earth science, which makes it pretty darn important.

This week, my lab students have elected to learn about plate tectonics. They cast votes – unbiased by me – and chose my favorite topic. So I’m using this blog to teach them (and you!) some basics.

The simple idea behind plate tectonics is that the lithosphere – the outermost portion of the earth which includes the continental and oceanic crust and the uppermost mantle – is broken up into rigid sections called plates that “float” on a weak part of the mantle called the asthenosphere. Below the plates, the mantle convects – similar to how water convects in the pot when you’re boiling it on the stove – and this convection results in motion of the overlying tectonic plates.

Plates move relative to each other in three different ways at plate boundaries. They can push into each other – which is known as a convergent plate boundary, they can move away from each other – which is known as a divergent plate boundary, and they can move past one another – which is known as a transform plate boundary. The interactions at plate boundaries result in many geologic features and phenomena that are observed on earth. For example, mountains, volcanoes, and earthquakes are all related to motion at plate boundaries. Sometimes, some of these features occur inside of a plate instead of at a boundary but that’s due to a different phenomenon you can learn about here.

Different types of plate boundaries and where they occur on earth.

My lab students will learn about the different features associated with these types of plate boundaries as well as the hazards associated with each.

Hopefully, I’ve piqued your interest in plate tectonics and if you want to learn more, continue reading my blog because plate tectonics has it all and is always on my mind!

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