This image is a cross section through the Earth showing the convection cells of the mantle. Ridge push happens at spreading centers where plates are moving apart. Slab pull happens at subduction zones where one plate is pulled down into the mantle.
Windows Original after Northcott
How Do Plates Move?
Plates at our planet’s surface move because of the intense heat in the Earth’s core that causes molten rock in the mantle layer to move. It moves in a pattern called a convection cell that forms when warm material rises, cools, and eventually sink down. As the cooled material sinks down, it is warmed and rises again.
Scientists once thought that Earth’s plates just surfed on top of the mantle’s giant convection cells, but now scientists believe that plates help themselves move instead of just surfing along. Just like convection cells, plates have warmer, thinner parts that are more likely to rise, and colder, denser parts that are more likely to sink.
New parts of a plate rise because they are warm and the plate is thin. As hot magma rises to the surface at spreading ridges and forms new crust, the new crust pushes the rest of a plate out of its way. This is called ridge push.
Old parts of a plate are likely to sink down into the mantle at subduction zones because they are colder and thicker than the warm mantle material underneath them. This is called slab pull.
Last modified May 21, 2008 by Lisa Gardiner.
Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!
Our online store
includes issues of NESTA's quarterly journal, The Earth Scientist
, full of classroom activities on different topics in Earth and space science, as well as books
on science education!
You might also be interested in:
The main force that shapes our planet's surface over long amounts of time is the movement of Earth's outer layer by the process of plate tectonics. This picture shows how the rigid outer layer of the Earth,...more
When two sections of the Earth's crust collide, one slab of crust can be forced back down into the deeper regions of the Earth, as shown in this diagram. This process is called subduction. The slab that...more
Ash is made of millions of tiny fragments of rock and glass formed during a volcanic eruption. Volcanic ash particles are less than 2 mm in size and can be much smaller. Volcanic ash forms in several ways...more
Cinder cones are simple volcanoes which have a bowl-shaped crater at the summit and only grow to about a thousand feet, the size of a hill. They usually are created of eruptions from a single opening,...more
Lava can move in broad flat lava flows, or it can move through tight channels or tubes. Lava flows tend to cool quickly and flow slowly. The fastest lava outside of channels moves at about 6 mi/hr an easy...more
Plates at our planet’s surface move because of the intense heat in the Earth’s core that causes molten rock in the mantle layer to move. It moves in a pattern called a convection cell that forms when...more
Many kinds of surface features are clues that our lithosphere is sliding. Two types of features can form when plates move apart. At mid ocean ridges, the bottom of the sea splits apart and new crust is...more