NSS Convention ~ July 25-30, 2021

USGS Volcano Image

Plate-Tectonics Theory

  • By Robert I. Tilling, U.S. Geological Survey
Plate-Tectonics diagram.

In the Pacific Northwest, the Juan de Fuca Plate plunges beneath the North American Plate, locally melting at depth; the magma rises to feed and form the Cascade volcanoes. The area at the top of this figure is the area highlighted in red at the right.

According to plate-tectonics theory, scientists believe that the Earth's surface is broken into a number of shifting slabs or plates, which average about 50 miles in thickness. These plates move relative to one another above a hotter, deeper, more mobile zone at average rates as great as a few inches per year. Most of the world's active volcanoes are located along or near the boundaries between shifting plates and are called "plate-boundary" volcanoes. However, some active volcanoes are not associated with plate boundaries, and many of these so-called "intra-plate" volcanoes form roughly linear chains in the interior of some oceanic plates. The Hawaiian Islands provide perhaps the best example of an intra-plate volcanic chain, developed by the northwest-moving Pacific plate passing over an inferred hot spot that initiates the magma-generation and volcano formation process. The peripheral areas of the Pacific Ocean Basin, containing the boundaries of several plates, are dotted by many active volcanoes that form the so-called "Ring of Fire." The ring provides excellent examples of plate boundary volcanoes, including Mount St. Helens.

The accompanying figure shows the boundaries of lithosphere plates that are presently active. The double lines indicate zones of spreading from which plates are moving apart. The lines with barbs show zones of underthrusting (subduction), where one plate is sliding beneath another. The barbs on the lines indicate the overriding plate. The single line defines a strike-slip fault along which plates are sliding horizontally past one another. The stippled areas indicate a part of a continent, exclusive of that along a plate boundary, which is undergoing active extensional, compressional, or strike-slip faulting.