Learning Plate Tectonics by Brushing up on Basic Geography

A. Maps to use to brush up on geography

Find the features listed below on a Physiographic Map (a map showing topographic features, rivers and ocean bathymetry) such as Figure 1.13, pg, 17 (Figure 16.3, pg. 370) or at the site


You could also poke around with National Geographic's "Map Machine


Or Google Earth http://earth.google.com/index.html

The globe in the UT library 3rd floor map library is an excellent physiographic globe that is not labeled so you can use that to test you geography and locate plate-tectonic features

1. Continents and Subcontinents [in brackets]

The Western Hemisphere: North America, South America, [Alaska], [Greenland] 

The Eastern Hemisphere: Europe/Asia (Eurasia), Africa, [Arabian Peninsula], [India]

Don't forget these continents: Australia, Antarctica

Other important regions [not continents]: Mediterranean (and Alps), Middle East, Central America

2. Oceans and Major Seas

Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic, Indian, Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea


3. Major Mountain Belts and Ranges

Ranges of Americas : Appalachians, Rocky Mnts., Cascade Range (part of the North American Cordillera, pg. 111), Sierra Nevada, Basin and Range (Nevada), Andes

Other Mountain Belts around the world: Himalaya, Alps, New Zealand Alps

4. Major Island Arcs and Other Islands [in brackets]

Philippines, Virgin Islands/West Indies (part of the same island arc), Aleutian Islands (island arc southwest of Alaska), New Zealand, Japanese Islands, Indonesia, [Iceland], [Hawaiian Islands], 


B. Learning the Plate Boundaries

Once you know your continents, Oceans, and mountain belts it is easy to learn the major tectonic plates and their boundaries.

1. The Major Tectonic Plates

Every continent "rides" on a tectonic plate.  Eurasia is a single plate (the earth's largest).  African Plate, Eurasian Plate, North American Plate, South American Plate, Antarctic Plate, Indian-Australian Plate (they are both on the same plate separated by the Indian Ocean)

2. The Pacific Plate

The only major plate without a continent is the Pacific Plate.  In all that makes 7  major plates (6 with continents and 1 without)

3.  Divergent Plate Boundaries

Every ocean and sea listed above has a Divergent Plate Boundary and a mid ocean ridge. For example, see figure 1.13 . Mid-Atlantic Ridge, East Pacific Rise, Mid-Indian Ridge, Arctic (not usually shown).

4. Convergent Plate Boundaries (Ocean-Ocean)

Each Island Arc is associate with an Ocean-Ocean Convergent Plate Boundary (The Hawaiian Island chain is not considered an Island arc).  Notice that each of these island arcs have a Oceanic Trench associated with them; why do you think that is?

5. Convergent Plate Boundaries (involving continents)

The mountain belts listed above in bold face are at ocean-continents Convergent Plate Boundaries (North American Cordillera, Andes) or continent-continent Convergent Plate Boundary (the Himalayas are the best example of this type of plate boundary).

6. Transform Plate Boundaries

The classic Transform Plate Boundary is the one that passes beneath North American Plate in western California causing the San Andreas Fault.

Also, every mid-ocean ridge is offset along its length by transform boundaries.