Teach the Earth > Geophysics > Visualizations > Plate Tectonic Movements

Plate Tectonic Movement Visualizations

Compiled by Jeff Crabaugh and John McDaris (SERC).

This section provides access to a wide array of visualizations and supporting material that can be used effectively to teach students about plate tectonic movements. Visualizations include simple animations, GIS-based animated maps, paleogeographic maps and globes, as well as numerous illustrations and photos. This collection is not exhaustive but does represent some of the best sources for teaching.

Click here to browse the complete set of Visualization Collections.

Divergent, Convergent, Transform Boundaries :

Discovering Plate Boundaries (more info) This exercise is based on several world maps containing earthquake, volcano, topography, satellite gravity, and seafloor age data. Developed by Dale S. Sawyer, Professor of Earth Science at Rice University, 'Discovering Plate Boundaries' utilizes a novel "jigsaw" manner in which student groups access the maps and use them to discover, classify, and describe plate boundary types. This resource is also found in the 'NSDL Using Data in the Classroom Portal' here at SERC.

Exploring Earth (more info) Plate tectonic animations of 1.) Alternating magnetic polarity recorded at mid-ocean ridges (divergence), 2.) Processes that occur along plate boundaries (divergent, convergent, and transform motion), and 3.) Growth of a continent (convergence and subduction). Animations coded as ES0803, ES0804, and ES0804 found in Chapter 8: Plate Tectonics. Created by the Center for Earth and Space Science Education at TERC, Inc., Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Plate Tectonic Animations (more info) Thirteen simple plate tectonic animations (gifs) grouped into two related series depicting: 1) modern position of plate boundaries and plate motions through geologic time, and 2) creation of crust at mid-ocean ridge (i.e., divergent boundary) and imaging of magnetic stripes on the seafloor. Animations were originally produced for the US Geological Survey video 'Secrets in Stone'.

Educational Multimedia Visualization Center: Downloads (more info) Nine animations address tectonics of the west coast of North America, many aspects of transform boundaries and strike-slip faulting. Animations also depict subduction, rifting and volcanism, and oil reservoirs.

This Dynamic Earth: the Story of Plate Tectonics (more info) Still images used to introduce the concept of plate tectonics in this classic treatment from the USGS. Illustrations are concise and easy to understand, and used to depict topics such as plate boundaries; plate motions; and hotspots and mantle thermal plumes. Includes a particularly clear and informative historical perspective.

The Wilson Cycle (more info) Pictoral description of the Wilson Cycle. Scientific visualizations include drawings of all stages of the Wilson Cycle, a one page summary of the Cycle and a circular depiction of the Wilson Cycle.

Plate Movement Through Time :

Paleogeography and Geologic Evolution of North America (more info) The site consists of images showing how current research suggests the North American continent has developed over the last 550 million years. The 41 maps show projections of how the continent looked at particular points in geologic time.

Regional Paleogeographic Views of Earth History (more info) Regional paleogeographic reconstructions of North America, Colorado Plateau, SW North America, and Mesozoic terrane accretion. These beautiful reconstructions by geologist Ron Blakey (formerly Northern Arizona University) and Colorado Plateau Geosystems, Inc.

Paleomap Project (more info) Paleogeographic globes that move, tilt, and spin to allow viewing from different angles, and animated plate-tectonic maps that show plate movement and sea-floor spreading for different periods in earth history are available for purchase. Paleomap Project is the creation of Christopher R. Scotese at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Continental Drift (more info) Animation and interactive timeline illustrating continental drift from the Precambrian to Cenozoic.

Tectonics 1.0 (more info) An interactive tectonic puzzle, students can apply the theory of continental drift and attempt to reconstruct the ancient super continent of Pangea.

Data Used to Define Plate Boundary :

Seismicity and Volcanism Visualization (more info) Alan L. Jones, Geological Sciences at SUNY Binghamton, has created seismology visualizations- global maps of earthquake distribution and 3-D cut away views of some select earthquakes such as Alaska 1964 (deep focus earthquakes on a Bennioff zone), Loma Prieta (transform), etc.

Discover Our Earth (more info) These educational webpages provide a means to create user-directed, GIS-based maps of earthquakes, volcanoes, and topography and relate these to plate boundary type. 'Discover Our Earth' is a product of the Institute for the Study of the Continents (INSTOC) at Cornell University.

My World GIS (more info) 'My World' is a Geographic Information System (GIS) tool that aids in the creation of visual representations of geographic data; in this case maps showing significant earthquakes concentrated near plate tectonic boundaries. 'My World' is directed by Daniel Edelson at the School of Education, Northwestern University. Features include multiple geographic projections, map views of data, and distance-measurement tools.

Our Dynamic Planet (more info) CD-ROM can be ordered online, and provides tools to investigate plate tectonics. Contains lecture video, map-data display, and graphics workshop, as well as data on elevations, earthquakes, heat flow, and volcanoes. DEM data are available for selected mid-ocean ridge study areas. Companion teacher's manual available. Developed by William Prothero, Geological Sciences, University of California Santa Barbara.

Maps Showing Vectors and Movement :

SAGUARO: Science and GIS Unlocking Analysis and Research Opportunities (more info) This group of activities utilize the SAGUARO project GIS environment to investigate sea floor spreading and plate motion. Students calculate rates and change in rates of sea floor spreading over time, while plate motion vectors are also explored in order to predict future plate motion. This multimedia approach incorporates digital stills, animations, video, and audio to create an inquiry-based learning experience. The first two units within 'The Dynamic Earth' module address a number of fundamental issues in the study of plate tectonics. The SAGUARO Project is directed by Michelle Hall-Wallace at the University of Arizona.

Jules Verne Voyager, Jr (more info) Developed by UNAVCO, this interactive map tool provides a means to integrate base maps, and geographic and geophysical data. Velocity vectors can then be superimposed to create a visual representation of both 'absolute' plate motion and relative motion.

The PLATES Project (more info) Contains animations of plate tectonic movement through geologic history (under the headings 'Reconstructions' and 'Movies'). Several maps with plate motion arrows are shown under the heading of 'Teaching'. Lawrence Lawver and Ian Dalziel of the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics (UTIG) are Principal Investigators of the PLATES Project.

Hot Spots :

Do Plumes Exist? (more info) Still images accompany a particularly rich collection of manuscripts discussing the nature of volcanic hotspots and questioning the existence of mantle plumes. This resource collection takes the scientific position that plumes do not exist. However, issues in question are well delineated and the collection brings to life the vigorous discourse and history behind a current scientific debate. The site is managed and maintained by Gillian R. Foulger at the University of Durham, U.K.

Essentials of Geology: Hot Spot Volcanoes Animation (more info) Animation depicts the generation of hot spot volcanoes. A mantle plume beneath an oceanic plate creates a hot spot at the base of the lithosphere, and a volcano forms. Because the hot spot remains fixed as the plate moves over it, this volcano eventually becomes extinct and a new one forms. In time, a chain of extinct volcanoes develops, with a live volcano over the hot spot as the last link in the chain. Labeled 2.10. Contributed by structural geologist Stephen Marshak, University of Illinois.

Mantle Convection Movies On-Line at Caltech (more info) Animation of a proposed mechanism of superplume generation at the core/mantle boundary (succinct explanation included). Third from the top in a series of ten animations depicting mantle convection; produced by Michael Gurnis' group at Caltech.

The Magma Foundry ( This site may be offline. ) This lecture activity investigates plate tectonics through integration of lecture text with still images and simple interactive visualizations. The module guides the student through a review of how our understanding of plate tectonics on Earth could be used to study another planet. Topics reviewed include hotspots and plate motion direction and rate, as well as plate boundary types as they relate to seismicity and heat flow. Follow links by clicking on 'Pedogogical Tools' at top red bar, then 'Lecture Activities', then ' Plate Tectonics: Determining Plate Geometry'. The Magma Foundry consists of Jimm Myers and Jim McClurg both with the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Wyoming.

Accretionary Tectonics and Exotic Terrains :

Accretionary Tectonics: Paleogeography of the Southwestern U.S. (more info) Non-exotic terrain interpretations versus scenarios invoking accretionary tectonics are contrasted in this series of Permian to Mesozoic paleogeographic maps of the Southwest U.S. In the second scenario accretion of exotic microplates, and transverse motions of small and large plates along the Cordilleran margin, produced mountain building. Click on 'Permian', 'Triassic', 'Jurassic', and 'Cretaceous' links under 'Paleogeographic Maps and Globes'. These beautiful reconstructions were developed by geologist Ron Blakey at Northern Arizona University.

The Canadian Cordillera (more info) The terranes and tectonic elements of Northwestern North America. Numerous maps, cross-sections, diagrams, notes, and annotated references. Compiled by W. R. Church, Western Ontario University.