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Geohazards such as earthquakes and volcanoes would not happen if the Earth's crust was solid and did not move. The theory of continental drift explains how the continents have moved over time due to plate tectonics.
The German scientist Alfred Wegener, proposed in 1912 a theory of continental drift to explain how the Earth's land masses came to be 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 could have lived at the same time on continents that are now widely separated by ocean, and how identical mountain ranges in different continents were once joined.
250 million years ago the Earth's continents were once joined together in one giant supercontinent called Pangaea. Slowly, over millions of years Pangaea broke into Laurasia and Gondwana. These supercontinents have drifted apart forming the smaller continents of today.
Since the 1960s, detailed geological studies of the Earth’s crust have greatly increased our understanding of how the continents move. The theory of continental drift has been replaced with the term ‘plate tectonics’.
On the Earth today there are seven large plates and many smaller ones. They are made of blocks of continental and oceanic lithosphere (crust and upper mantle). Oceanic crust is usually about 10km thick while continental crust is about 30–50km thick. With crust and upper mantle combined, the slabs of lithosphere are between 40 and 200km thick.
The plates move in slow motion and are constantly changing shape. It is thought that convection currents in the mantle of the Earth provide the energy to move the tectonic plates from a few millimetres to a maximum of about 15cm per year.
At the edge of the tectonic plates one of three processes can occur:
Also known as a spreading boundary, where two plates move apart allowing magma, or molten rock, to rise from inside the Earth to fill in the gap. The two plates move away from each other like two conveyor belts moving in opposite directions. This can create rift valleys on land or ocean ridges on the seafloor (for example the Atlantic Ocean).
Where two plates are colliding. Different things will happen depending on what type of plates are colliding:
A transform boundary occurs where two plates slide against each other in a shear movement. But rather than sliding smoothly, the plates build up tension then release the tension with a burst of movement. This movement is felt as an earthquake.
New Zealand is located on the edge of two tectonic plates, the Indo-Australian and the Pacific plates. This position makes New Zealand geologically active with frequent 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 and deformation of New Zealand if the movement measured between 1994-1998 were to continue unchanged.
Convection currents caused by heating in the Earth's mantle explain how the continents move. Who came up with this theory and what is this theory called? Image: Public Domain.
New Zealand is located on the edge of two tectonic plates; the Indo Australian Plate and the Pacific Plate. How do you think this affects New Zealand? Image: GNS Science.
The two plates push past each other along the Alpine Fault, moving about 38mm per year. What land feature can be seen alongside the Alpine Fault? Image: GNS Science.
The Indo Australian Plate is like a bulldozer pushing at the weaker Pacific Plate causing it to rise up into the mountain range known as the Southern Alps. What else does this plate movement cause? Image: LEARNZ.