What are Plate Boundaries?

In Plate Tectonic Theory, the lithosphere is broken into tectonic plates, which undergo some large scale motions. The boundary regions between plates are aptly called plate boundaries. Based upon their motions with respect to one another, these plate boundaries are of three kinds: divergent, convergent, and transform.

Divergent Boundaries:

Divergent boundaries are those that move away from one another. When they separate, they form what is known as a rift. As the gap between the two plates widen, the underlying layer may be soft enough for molten lava underneath to push its way upward. This upward push results in the formation of volcanic islands. Molten lava that succeeds in breaking free eventually cools and forms part of the ocean floor.

Some formations due to divergent plate boundaries are the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the Gakkel Ridge. On land, you have Lake Baikal in Siberia and Lake Tanganyika in East Africa.

Convergent Boundaries:

Convergent boundaries are those that move towards one another. When they collide, subduction usually takes place. That is, the denser plate gets subducted or goes underneath the less dense one. Sometimes, the plate boundaries also experience buckling. Convergent boundaries are responsible for producing the deepest and tallest structures on Earth.

Among those that have formed due to convergent plate boundaries are K2 and Mount Everest, the tallest peaks in the world. They formed when the Indian plate got subducted underneath the Eurasian plate. Another extreme formation due to the convergent boundary is the Mariana Trench, the deepest region on Earth.

Transform Boundaries:

Transform boundaries are those that slide alongside one another. Lest you imagine a slippery, sliding motion, take note that the surfaces involved are exposed to huge amounts of stress and strain and are momentarily held in place. As a result, when the two plates finally succeed in moving with respect to one another, huge amounts of energy are released. This causes earthquakes.

The San Andreas fault in North America is perhaps the most popular transform boundary. Transform boundary is also known as transform fault or conservative plate boundary.

Movements of the plates are usually just a few centimeters per year. However, due to the huge masses and forces involved, they typically result in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. If the interactions between plate boundaries involve only a few centimeters per year, you could just imagine the great expanse of time it had to take before the land formations we see today came into being.

You can read more about plate boundaries here in Universe Today. Here are the links:

Here are the links of two more articles from USGS:

Here are two episodes at Astronomy Cast that you might want to check out as well:

Plate Boundaries

What are Divergent Boundaries?

Pangea animation

Divergent boundaries are one of the bi-products of plate tectonics. As the name implies, divergent boundaries are formed when two adjacent tectonic plates separate, i.e., when they diverge.

When tectonic plates start to diverge, the linear feature formed is called a rift. Sometimes, the gap widens and sometimes it stops. When the gap eventually widens, it then evolves into a rift valley. Divergent boundaries that occur between oceanic plates produce mid-oceanic ridges.

In places where molten lava is able to move up and fill the gap, volcanic islands are eventually formed. Molten lava that rises eventually cools and forms part of the ocean floor.

One divergent boundary is the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, found at the bottom of the Atlantic and is the longest mountain range in the world. That’s right, the longest mountain range is hidden from our view. Imagine how astonished crew members of the HMS Challenger were when they discovered the massive rise underneath them. The Challenger expedition was dedicated to scientific discoveries the became foundations of oceanography. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge was observed by the HMS Challenger in 1872.

The record for the slowest divergent boundary in the world goes to Gakkel Ridge between the North American Plate and the Eurasian Plate in the Arctic Ocean. Its annual rate of separation is less than one centimeter – that’s about half as fast the rate your fingernails grow. Robotic submersibles belonging to the AGAVE expedition discovered microbial communities of over a dozen new species on this ridge.

Although not as common, rift valleys can also be formed on land. One example is the Basin and Range province in Nevada and Utah. The world’s largest freshwater lakes such as Siberia’s Lake Baikal and East Africa’s Lake Tanganyika are found in rift valleys.

One of the favorite natural laboratories for the study of divergent plate boundaries is Iceland. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge runs beneath Iceland and as the North American Plate moves westward while the Eurasian Plate moves eastward, Iceland will slowly be sliced in half. When water rushes in to fill the widening gap, this huge island of ice will form two smaller islands.

How far can divergent boundaries go? Well if we look at a time frame of 100 to 200 million years, we can easily spot the Atlantic Ocean. What is believed to have been a tiny inlet of water between the formerly merged Europe, Africa, and Americas has now evolved into this vast expanse of water.

You can read more about divergent boundaries here in Universe Today. Here are the links:

There’s more about it at USGS. Here are a couple of sources there:

Here are two episodes at Astronomy Cast that you might want to check out as well:

Plate Boundaries