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Tectonic Plates as the Big Idea in Science

There are theories and ideas that are considered to be of major importance, as they provide an explanation of the way our world functions. Einstein’s Relativity, Steven Hawking’s Black Holes in Astronomy, and Darwin’s Origin of Species are a few examples of the ideas that, at some point, fundamentally changed our perception of the laws of nature. There are also multiple other theories, which, for some unknown reason, are not as popular as the above mentioned. For instance, the theory of plate tectonics explains in detail the way our planet influences numerous aspects of human activities. In the 21st century, people have to examine Earth’s features more if we are desperate in our desire to address environmental issues.

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Plate tectonics explains the motion of several plates of Earth’s lithosphere. It differs significantly from the underlying asthenosphere in terms of the transfer heat and a few other factors. According to Savage, convection of Earth’s mantle causes the development of thermal boundary layers and tectonic plates at the surface (549). The lithosphere consists of several plates that move separately, riding on the asthenosphere. Harrison states that there has been a huge growth in the number of plates, which were thought to exist. Each of the tectonic plates has a top crust layer. There are two major types of crust: oceanic and continental. Most plates contain different mixes of both types of the crust.

Each of the plates constantly moves and influences other plates’ directions. Nevertheless, the total surface of the lithosphere remains the same. Jagoda and Rutkowska argue that the estimation of tectonic plate motion has become an important field of geodesy for numerous reasons (151). The plates’ movement is possible due to the lateral density variations in different parts of the outer layers of the Earth. Moreover, the Sun and Moon also have some influence on the way the plates move.

The most important part of the theory, as far as the current environmental problems are concerned, is, arguably, the plate boundary. This term is used to denote a specific area where the plates meet and interact with each other, which causes multiple unpleasant events, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and others. Most of the volcanoes are also located on such boundaries. The Pacific Plate’s Ring of Fire is the most vivid example of an area where numerous volcano eruptions often happen due to the volcanos’ location between several tectonic plates.

On the whole, there are three main types of plate boundaries: divergent boundaries, convergent boundaries, and transform boundaries. First, divergent boundaries are formed when two neighboring plates move in opposite directions. Convergent boundaries, on the contrary, are created when one of the plates slides over another one. Finally, a transform boundary is created when the plates grind past each other and do not actually create anything.

Plate tectonics is relatively new compared to some other big ideas. Livermore states that during the 1960s and 1970s, the theory of the plates was erected on the foundations laid by earlier researchers, notably Arthur Holmes (4). Oceanography managed to support the idea behind the theory of tectonic plates by exploring seafloor spreading. In 1947, a group of scientists proved that there was a substantial rise in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The crust there did not resemble the one they were used to. Moreover, the oceanic crust turned out to be much thinner than the continental. These discoveries raised questions about the nature of seafloor spreading and the formation of the crust itself.

Bruce Heezen described the continuing creation of the ocean floor in his 1960 paper. This idea revolutionized much in Oceanography and led to the creation of “expanding Earth” theories, as it was hard to realize that the lithosphere stays the same, and that the theory of tectonic plates is the only suitable explanation. The idea that the creation and destruction of the crust happen simultaneously and are caused by the motion of the tectonic plates allowed for even more discoveries in this sphere. Nowadays, for instance, seismic anisotropy represents a record of deformation within the Earth (Schaeffer et al. 904). There are numerous other fields of study which owe to the discoveries of the 1960s.

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The slow drift of tectonic plates has created the geography as we know it today and has always shaped human history. For instance, it created the mountains, which changed the climate and prevented large-scale wars between nations; it also leads to volcano activities, which also causes climate change. Moreover, the motion of the tectonic plates continues to influence the lives of millions of people, usually threatening them. A large portion of the world population lives in the areas that are vulnerable to tsunamis caused either by the tectonic plate drift itself or the volcano eruption.

People who live by the plate boundaries have always been terrified by the earthquakes and tsunamis and even came up with some brilliant devices which were designed to warn about the future disaster. For instance, the Chinese invented the seismoscope in the 2nd century. It shows the importance of such natural calamities to the wellbeing of society. For example, it is now possible to predict that millions of people (especially in Southeast Asia) will face devastating floods, which can be exacerbated by tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcano eruptions, in the near future. Infrastructure in most of the vulnerable regions does not provide the opportunity to evacuate people in a timely manner. Even Japan, which has a high-income economy and possesses great infrastructure, is still vulnerable when a tsunami hits.

The theory of tectonic plates should be included in several school subjects, as it explains much more than a few processes which may be of interest only to geologists. History as a subject, for instance, should be focused more on the environment people used to live in and their everyday activities, not solely on the rulers and the dates of wars. Modern people should have the opportunity to broaden their horizons by learning about the lifestyles our ancestors had. To do this, climate, agriculture, and the role of natural calamities and diseases should be emphasized in history books. Moreover, people should be aware of the direct impact of their current decisions on the environment. For instance, satellite data shows that human activities cause the rapid warming of the oceans, which results in more natural calamities.

We currently live under strange circumstances, as we are now as vulnerable to natural calamities and climate change as our ancestors were several thousand years ago. Despite having numerous advanced technologies, we should still be aware of the astonishing power that our planet also has. The tectonic plates have been moving for centuries, shaping the conditions people have to adapt to. Some of the outcomes of the continental drift turned out to be a blessing (such as geysers in Iceland), but most of them have always been extremely dangerous. Therefore, the theory of tectonic plates should become a vital basic subject for the rapidly increasing number of people whose professional choices have something to do with saving people’s lives from the threats of the 21st century.

Works Cited

Harrison, Christopher G. A. “The Present-day Number of Tectonic Plates.” Earth, Planets and Space, vol. 68, no. 1, 2016.

Jagoda, Marcin, and Miłosława Rutkowska. “Use of VLBI Measurement Technique for Determination of Motion Parameters of the Tectonic Plates.” Metrology and Measurement Systems, vol. 27, no.1, 2020, pp. 151-165.

Livermore, Roy. The Tectonic Plates are Moving!. Oxford UP, 2018.

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Savage, Brian. “A Seismic Shift in Continental Tectonic Plates.” Science, vol. 357, no. 6351, 2017, pp. 549-550.

Schaeffer, Andrew J., et al. “Azimuthal Seismic Anisotropy in the Earth’s Upper Mantle and the Thickness of Tectonic Plates.” Geophysical Supplements to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, vol. 207, no. 2, 2016, pp. 901-933.

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