The beginnings of the theory of plate tectonics date to around 1920, when Alfred Wegener, the German meteorologist and geophysicist, presented the first detailed accounts of how today's continents were once a large supercontinent that slowly drifted to their present positions. Others brought forth evidence, but plate tectonics processes and continental drift did not attract wide interest until the late 1950s, when scientists found the alignment of magnetic particles in rock responded to the earth's magnetic field of that time. Plotting paleomagnetic polar changes (see paleomagnetism) showed that all continents had moved across the earth over time.
Synthesized from these findings and others in geology, oceanography, and geophysics, plate tectonics theory holds that the lithosphere, the hard outer layer of the earth, is divided into about 7 major plates and perhaps as many as 12 smaller plates, c.60 mi (100 km) thick, resting upon a lower soft layer called the asthenosphere. Because the sides of a plate are either being created or destroyed, its size and shape are continually changing. Such active plate tectonics make studying global tectonic history, especially for the ocean plates, difficult for times greater than 200 million years ago. The continents, which are c.25 mi (40 km) thick, are embedded in some of the plates, and hence move as the plates move about on the earth's surface.
The mechanism moving the plates is at present unknown, but is probably related to the transfer of heat energy or convection within the earth's mantle. If true, and the convection continues, the earth will continue to cool. This will eventually halt the mantle's motion allowing the crust to stabilize, much like what has happened on other planets and satellites in the solar system, such as Mars and the moon.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.