In 1912 the German scientist Alfred Wegener came up with a theory of continental drift. The theory explains how the Earth's land masses moved to where they are now. The theory was based on the Earth’s continents once fitting together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Continental drift explains how similar animals and plants lived in countries now widely separated by ocean, and how mountain ranges in different continents were once joined.
250 million years ago the Earth's continents were joined together in one giant super-continent called Pangaea. Slowly, over millions of years, Pangaea broke in two and drifted apart forming the smaller continents of today.
Our understanding of how the continents move has improved. The theory of continental drift has now been replaced with the term ‘plate tectonics’. On the Earth today there are seven large plates and many smaller ones. The plates move in slow motion and are always changing shape.
At the edge of the tectonic plates one of three things can occur:
- Spreading boundary (divergent) - A spreading boundary, where two plates move apart so magma, or molten rock, can rise from inside the Earth to fill in the gap. The two plates move away from each other. This can form rift valleys on land or ocean ridges on the seafloor (eg the Atlantic Ocean).
- Colliding boundary (convergent) - Where two plates push together. Different things will happen depending on what type of plates are colliding:
- If the plates are continental plates they are the same weight so the plates cannot over-ride each other and the land buckles and folds, forming mountain ranges.
- If the plates are both oceanic plates then island arcs or basins can form.
- If an oceanic plate hits a continental plate the heavier oceanic plate will sink under the continental plate.
- Sliding boundary (transform) - When two plates slide against each other, but rather than sliding smoothly, the plates build up stress then release this with a burst of movement felt as an earthquake.
Plate Tectonics in New Zealand
New Zealand sits on the edge of two tectonic plates, the Indo-Australian and the Pacific plates. This makes New Zealand geologically active with many earthquakes, geothermal areas and volcanoes. This plate boundary has shaped New Zealand: The movement of these two tectonic plates forms the New Zealand landscape that we know and love.
Watch the GNS Science animation (519k), showing the future shape of New Zealand if the current movement continues.
Plate tectonics in Iceland
Iceland sits on top of the Atlantic ridge, the spreading boundary between the Eurasian and North American plates: As the two plates drift in opposite directions Iceland is slowly being split apart. This plate movement makes Iceland geologically active, just like New Zealand.
Ready for a quiz? Try 'The Moving Crust' interactive activity.