The Massive Forces That Shape Our Planet

UW-Madison Scientist Develops Model to Track Tectonic Plate Movement

by Nancy Garduño, age 14

The Earth’s tectonic plates are always shifting, colliding, and floating above our planet’s molten interior. The massive forces created by these huge plates shape our world. They can also be very destructive.

As everyone knows, Haiti and Chile recently suffered severe earthquakes. Both these events were largely caused by tectonic plate movement.

In an effort to reduce the devastation caused by major earthquakes, a new model of the Earth, developed by Buck DeMets from UW-Madison, Richard Garden of Rice University, and NASA’s Donald Argus, now displays the worldwide movement of tectonic plates.

This advancement in technology took over 20 years to develop. Scientists now have a much greater ability to predict upcoming plate movements. They can also identify where such movements might occur, and even predict timing.

During the past 20 years, researchers have put together more, and higher-quality data, to improve the model’s resolution and precision. Data obtained from this new tectonic model will be useful for studying the underlying forces that control plate movements.

The new model is described as a dynamic three-dimensional puzzle of planetary proportions. It provides exact details about the movements of the 25 interlocking tectonic plates that make up 97 percent of the Earth’s surface. The model is named MORVEL, an acronym for “mid-ocean ridge velocities.”

“This model can be used to predict the movement of the plate relative to any other plate on the Earth’s surface,” explains DeMets. In simpler terms, plate tectonics show the Earth’s power to build and change and how its surface moves. Approximately three-quarters of MORVEL’s data comes from the undersea boundaries between tectonic plates. New crust forms constantly at these boundaries as magma rises from ocean ridges and forces the Earth’s plates to move apart.

“We live on a dynamic planet, and it’s important to understand how the surface of the planet changes,” Gordon says. “Therefore, being able to realize, analyze, and comprehend the importance of tectonic plate movement is rather great. For our planet’s future, knowing only the basic facts about plate tectonics is only part of the knowledge left to discover.”

[Sources: National Science Foundation; NASA]