Neetu Singh 03 July 2019
In geologic terms, a plate is a large, rigid slab of solid rock. The word tectonics comes from the Greek root “to build.” Putting these two words together, we get the term plate tectonics, which refers to how the Earth’s surface is built of plates. The theory of plate tectonics states that the Earth’s outermost layer is fragmented into a dozen or more large and small plates that are moving relative to one another as they ride atop hotter, more mobile material. Before the advent of plate tectonics, however, some people already believed that the present-day continents were the fragmented pieces of preexisting larger landmasses (“supercontinents”). The diagrams below show the break-up of the supercontinent Pangaea (meaning “all lands” in Greek), which figured prominently in the theory of continental drift — the forerunner to the theory of plate tectonics. According to the continental drift theory, the supercontinent Pangaea began to break up about 225-200 million years ago, eventually fragmenting into the continents as we know them today.
Plate tectonics is a relatively new scientific concept, introduced some 30 years ago, but it has revolutionized our understanding of the dynamic planet upon which we live. The theory has unified the study of the Earth by drawing together many branches of the earth sciences, from paleontology (the study of fossils) to seismology (the study of earthquakes). It has provided explanations to questions that scientists had speculated upon for centuries — such as why earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur in very specific areas around the world, and how and why great mountain ranges like the Alps and Himalayas formed.
Why is the Earth so restless? What causes the ground to shake violently, volcanoes to erupt with explosive force, and great mountain ranges to rise to incredible heights? Scientists, philosophers, and theologians have wrestled with questions such as these for centuries. Until the 1700s, most Europeans thought that a Biblical Flood played a major role in shaping the Earth’s surface. This way of thinking was known as “catastrophism,” and geology (the study of the Earth) was based on the belief that all earthly changes were sudden and caused by a series of catastrophes. However, by the mid-19th century, catastrophism gave way to “uniformitarianism,” a new way of thinking centered around the “Uniformitarian Principle” proposed in 1785 by James Hutton, a Scottish geologist. This principle is commonly stated as follows: The present is the key to the past. Those holding this viewpoint assume that the geologic forces and processes — gradual as well as catastrophic — acting on the Earth today are the same as those that have acted in the geologic past. The belief that continents have not always been fixed in their present positions was suspected long before the 20th century; this notion was first suggested as early as 1596 by the Dutch map maker Abraham Ortelius in his work Thesaurus Geographicus. Ortelius suggested that the Americas were “torn away from Europe and Africa . by earthquakes and floods” and went on to say: “The vestiges of the rupture reveal themselves, if someone brings forward a map of the world and considers carefully the coasts of the three [continents].” Ortelius’ idea surfaced again in the 19th century. However, it was not until 1912 that the idea of moving continents was seriously considered as a full-blown scientific theory — called Continental Drift — introduced in two articles published by a 32-year-old German meteorologist named Alfred Lothar Wegener. He contended that, around 200 million years ago, the supercontinent Pangaea began to split apart. Alexander Du Toit, Professor of Geology at Johannesburg University and one of Wegener’s staunchest supporters, proposed that Pangaea first broke into two large continental landmasses, Laurasia in the northern hemisphere and Gondwanaland in the southern hemisphere. Laurasia and Gondwanaland then continued to break apart into the various smaller continents that exist today.
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