Can we unlock the mysteries of tectonic plate movement through geologic history?

In summary, plate tectonics is the theory that explains the dynamic movement of continents and oceans on Earth. It is based on observations of correlation between formations and fossils, and extrapolation from current small movements. Plate tectonics is modeled using differential equations and is used to project forward to future configurations.
  • #1
ChinleShale
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TL;DR Summary
Much of the Evolution of the Earth is described in terms of tectonic plate movement. What causes tectonic plates to move? What is the dynamical system?
I have been trying to learn about the geology of the western United States since recently moving to New Mexico. There are many videos and articles on line that explain the present and the past both in terms of tectonic plate movements. But the ones I have looked at do not describe why tectonic plates move the first place. What forces drives them? Do they satisfy a differential equation of some kind? How can geologists play the dynamics backwards to create pictures of past continents and oceans? Is this based on a theory of plate movement or is it an empirical analysis based on dating of formations?

Here is a lecture on the geologic history of the Mesozoic Era.

triassic geologial history youtube
 
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  • #3
ChinleShale said:
How can geologists play the dynamics backwards to create pictures of past continents and oceans? Is this based on a theory of plate movement or is it an empirical analysis based on dating of formations?
The correlation of formations and fossils makes it possible to run the process backwards.
Looking at the magnetism and structure in the ocean floor demonstrates the spreading.

The theory of why plates move is incomplete. Thermal convection is insufficient.
 
  • #4
ChinleShale said:
How can geologists play the dynamics backwards to create pictures of past continents and oceans? Is this based on a theory of plate movement or is it an empirical analysis based on dating of formations?

Both
But even without the fossil record, plate motions can be played backwards just by measuring faultline and spreading ridge movement.
 
  • #5
ChinleShale said:
Summary:: Much of the Evolution of the Earth is described in terms of tectonic plate movement. What causes tectonic plates to move? What is the dynamical system?
{snip}
Without offering textbook sources, the more recent plate tectonic dynamic systems appear modeled on fluid dynamics; specifically convection hydrodynamics and characteristics of molten rock.
ChinleShale said:
How can geologists play the dynamics backwards to create pictures of past continents and oceans?
Early global cartographers noticed that continental land edges separated by oceans appeared to be inverse images in the sense that the western borders of the European continent fit the eastern borders of North America; Africa with Meso and South America, and so on for all the Earth's continents.

Cut out shapes, images of the continents modified from spherical to a flat plane, fit together into larger shapes that merge into super-continent Pangaea, meaning 'all Earth'. This topographical correspondence inferred continental drift leading to the current theory of plate tectonics.

1612650190672.png
Artists' conception of Pangaea with component pieces merged.

{edit 20210209: replaced general field 'hydrodynamics' with specific term 'convection' described in University of Toronto paper in post #9.}
 
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  • #6
Klystron said:
Without offering textbook sources, the more recent plate tectonic dynamic systems appear modeled on fluid dynamics; specifically hydrodynamics and characteristics of molten rock.

So modern research describes plate tectonics in terms of differential equations? I would like to understand that. Reference?

Also while recreating past plate configurations seems to be based on empirical modeling, projecting forward to future configurations would presumably not be. Would this then use these differential equations?
 
  • #7
davenn said:
Both
But even without the fossil record, plate motions can be played backwards just by measuring faultline and spreading ridge movement.
So one extrapolates from current small movements?
 
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Thinking about the formation of Pangea and then its subsequent separation into separate continents, if one thinks of this as flows along convection currents in the mantle then it would seem that the direction of these currents reversed. If this is true, what are the dynamics of this convection flow reversal? What happens to convection flows when two plates collide?
 
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Related to Can we unlock the mysteries of tectonic plate movement through geologic history?

1. How do tectonic plates move?

Tectonic plates move due to convection currents in the Earth's mantle. These currents are caused by the heat from the Earth's core, which creates molten rock that rises and cools, causing the plates to move.

2. What evidence do we have for tectonic plate movement?

There are several pieces of evidence for tectonic plate movement, including the matching shapes of continents, the distribution of fossils and rock formations, and the occurrence of earthquakes and volcanic activity along plate boundaries.

3. Can we predict tectonic plate movement?

While we can make general predictions about the movement of tectonic plates based on their current positions and past movements, it is difficult to accurately predict specific movements. This is due to the complex and constantly changing nature of the Earth's mantle and the many variables involved in plate movement.

4. How has tectonic plate movement shaped Earth's surface?

Tectonic plate movement has played a major role in shaping Earth's surface, including the formation of mountain ranges, ocean basins, and other landforms. It has also influenced the distribution of land and sea on our planet.

5. Can we unlock all the mysteries of tectonic plate movement?

While we have made significant progress in understanding tectonic plate movement, there are still many mysteries that remain. The Earth's interior is incredibly complex and constantly changing, making it difficult to fully unlock all the secrets of tectonic plate movement. However, continued research and advancements in technology may help us gain a better understanding in the future.

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