Plate Tectonics with Maps and Spreadsheets
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Description of the activity/assignment
According to the theory of plate tectonics, Earth's lithosphere is composed of sections called plates that move around the surface of the Earth and interact along their boundaries. Plate boundaries are where many of the important geologic processes occur, such as volcanism and earthquakes. The average rate of plate movement is approximately 5 cm/yr (about as fast as fingernails grow). This rate is perceptible but only over a long time. Recently, however, it has become possible to measure plate motions by using the Global Positioning System (GPS).
Student materials for this exercise include a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet with with data for South American earthquakes, a file containing tectonic maps of the world and the eastern Pacific Ocean (PDF), and the question sheet. The exercise is divided into three parts.
Part I addresses the concept of plate tectonic boundaries (divergent, convergent, and transform) and the stresses across each type. Students work with a world tectonic map to identify particular boundaries and relative rates of motion. They also study a more detailed map of the eastern Pacific to determine plates and relative motions around the Juan Fernandez triple junction.
In Part II, students work with earthquake data across the Peru-Chile Trench. They learn how to create a chart in Excel and reformat the chart as a vertical cross-section of earthquake foci. Finally, they interpret the chart as a cross-section of the subduction zone.
Part III involves working with age and distance data for volcanoes along the Hawaiian Islands-Emperor Seamounts. Students create a chart with these data, add a trendline, and interpret the chart with respect to the rate of motion of the Pacific Plate.
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Download teaching materials and tips
- Activity Description/Assignment: Student Instructions for Plate Tectonics Activity (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 2MB Jun16 19)
- Instructors Notes: Lecture Slides for Plate Tectonics Activity (Acrobat (PDF) 8.9MB Jun16 19)
- Student Handout for Plate Tectonics Activity (Acrobat (PDF) 1.1MB Jun16 19)
- Workbook for Plate Tectonics Activity (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 211kB Jun16 19)
Lowman, P.D., Jr., 1997, Global tectonic and volcanic activity of the last one million years: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center: Online resource – Accessed 17 June 2019
Oreskes, N., 2013, Earth Science: How Plate Tectonics Clicked: Nature, v. 501, pp. 27-29, doi:10.1038/501027a
Plate Tectonics: The Geological Society: Online resource – Accessed 17 June 2019
What is a volcanic hotspot? 2018, NOAA Ocean Explorer: Online resource – Accessed 17 June 2019
Continental Drift: 3.3 Billion Years: Online resource – Accessed 17 June 2019