North American Plate

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North American Plate
Type Major
Approximate area75,900,000 km2 (29,300,000 sq mi) [1]
Speed115–25 mm (0.59–0.98 in)/year
Features North America, Greenland, Bering Sea, Atlantic Ocean, Arctic Ocean
1Relative to the African Plate

The North American Plate is a tectonic plate covering most of North America, Greenland, Cuba, the Bahamas, extreme northeastern Asia, and parts of Iceland and the Azores. With an area of 76,000,000 km2 (29,000,000 sq mi), it is the Earth's second largest tectonic plate, behind the Pacific Plate (which borders the plate to the west).

Plate tectonics The scientific theory that describes the large-scale motions of Earths lithosphere

Plate tectonics is a scientific theory describing the large-scale motion of seven large plates and the movements of a larger number of smaller plates of the Earth's lithosphere, since tectonic processes began on Earth between 3.3 and 3.5 billion years ago. The model builds on the concept of continental drift, an idea developed during the first decades of the 20th century. The geoscientific community accepted plate-tectonic theory after seafloor spreading was validated in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

North America Continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere

North America is a continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere. It is also considered by some to be a northern subcontinent of the Americas. It is bordered to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, to the west and south by the Pacific Ocean, and to the southeast by South America and the Caribbean Sea.

Greenland autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark

Greenland is an autonomous region of the Kingdom of Denmark, located between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, east of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Though physiographically a part of the continent of North America, Greenland has been politically and culturally associated with Europe for more than a millennium. The majority of its residents are Inuit, whose ancestors migrated from Alaska through Northern Canada, gradually settling across the island by the 13th century. Nowadays the population is largely concentrated on the southwest coast of the island while the rest of the island is sparsely populated. Greenland is divided into five municipalities—Sermersooq, Kujalleq, Qeqertalik, Qeqqata, and Avannaata. It has two unincorporated areas—the Northeast Greenland National Park and the Thule Air Base. The last one, even if under Danish control, is administered by the United States Air Force.


It extends eastward to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and westward to the Chersky Range in eastern Siberia. The plate includes both continental and oceanic crust. The interior of the main continental landmass includes an extensive granitic core called a craton. Along most of the edges of this craton are fragments of crustal material called terranes, which are accreted to the craton by tectonic actions over a long span of time. It is thought that much of North America west of the Rocky Mountains is composed of such terranes.

Mid-Atlantic Ridge A divergent tectonic plate boundary that in the North Atlantic separates the Eurasian and North American plates, and in the South Atlantic separates the African and South American plates

The Mid-Atlantic Ridge (MAR) is a mid-ocean ridge, a divergent tectonic plate or constructive plate boundary located along the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, and part of the longest mountain range in the world. In the North Atlantic, it separates the Eurasian and North American plates, and in the South Atlantic, it separates the African and South American plates. The ridge extends from a junction with the Gakkel Ridge northeast of Greenland southward to the Bouvet Triple Junction in the South Atlantic. Although the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is mostly an underwater feature, portions of it have enough elevation to extend above sea level. The section of the ridge that includes Iceland is known as the Reykjanes Ridge. The ridge has an average spreading rate of about 2.5 centimetres (0.98 in) per year.

Chersky Range mountain range

The Chersky Range is a chain of mountains in northeastern Siberia between the Yana River and the Indigirka River. It generally runs from northwest to southeast through the Sakha Republic and Magadan Oblast. The highest peak in the range is Peak Pobeda, which is 3,003 meters tall. The range lies on the boundary between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. The Chersky mountains, along with the neighboring Verkhoyansk Range, have a moderate effect on the climate of Siberia. The ridges obstruct west-moving air flows, decreasing the amount of snowfall in the plains to the west.

Continental crust Layer of rock that forms the continents and continental shelves

Continental crust is the layer of igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks that forms the continents and the areas of shallow seabed close to their shores, known as continental shelves. This layer is sometimes called sial because its bulk composition is richer in silicates and aluminium minerals and has a lower density compared to the oceanic crust, called sima which is richer in magnesium silicate minerals and is denser. Changes in seismic wave velocities have shown that at a certain depth, there is a reasonably sharp contrast between the more felsic upper continental crust and the lower continental crust, which is more mafic in character.


The southerly boundary with the Cocos Plate to the west and the Caribbean Plate to the east is a transform fault, represented by the Swan Islands Transform Fault under the Caribbean Sea and the Motagua Fault through Guatemala. The parallel Septentrional and Enriquillo–Plantain Garden faults, which run through the island of Hispaniola and bound the Gonâve Microplate, are also a part of the boundary. The rest of the southerly margin which extends east to the Mid Atlantic Ridge and marks the boundary between the North American Plate and the South American Plate is vague but located near the Fifteen-Twenty Fracture Zone around 16°N.

Cocos Plate A young oceanic tectonic plate beneath the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of Central America

The Cocos Plate is a young oceanic tectonic plate beneath the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of Central America, named for Cocos Island, which rides upon it. The Cocos Plate was created approximately 23 million years ago when the Farallon Plate broke into two pieces, which also created the Nazca Plate. The Cocos Plate also broke into two pieces, creating the small Rivera Plate. The Cocos Plate is bounded by several different plates. To the northeast it is bounded by the North American Plate and the Caribbean Plate. To the west it is bounded by the Pacific Plate and to the south by the Nazca Plate.

Caribbean Plate A mostly oceanic tectonic plate including part of Central America and the Caribbean Sea

The Caribbean Plate is a mostly oceanic tectonic plate underlying Central America and the Caribbean Sea off the north coast of South America.

Transform fault A plate boundary where the motion is predominantly horizontal

A transform fault or transform boundary is a plate boundary where the motion is predominantly horizontal. It ends abruptly and is connected to another transform, a spreading ridge, or a subduction zone.

On the northerly boundary is a continuation of the Mid-Atlantic ridge called the Gakkel Ridge. The rest of the boundary in the far northwestern part of the plate extends into Siberia. This boundary continues from the end of the Gakkel Ridge as the Laptev Sea Rift, on to a transitional deformation zone in the Chersky Range, then the Ulakhan Fault between it and the Okhotsk Plate, and finally the Aleutian Trench to the end of the Queen Charlotte Fault system.

Gakkel Ridge A mid-oceanic ridge under the Arctic Ocean between the North American Plate and the Eurasian Plate

The Gakkel Ridge is a mid-oceanic ridge, a divergent tectonic plate boundary between the North American Plate and the Eurasian Plate. It is located in the Eurasian Basin of the Arctic Ocean, between Greenland and Siberia, and has a length of about 1,800 kilometers. Geologically, it connects the northern end of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge with the Laptev Sea Rift.

Siberia Geographical region in Russia

Siberia is an extensive geographical region spanning much of Eurasia and North Asia. Siberia has historically been a part of modern Russia since the 17th century.

The Laptev Sea Rift is a divergent tectonic plate boundary between the North American Plate and the Eurasian Plate located on the Arctic Ocean coast of northeastern Siberia in Russia. The Laptev Sea Rift is the continuation of the Gakkel Ridge into the continental crust of Siberia. It starts offshore in the continental shelf and continues onshore to a point located in the Chersky Range where the boundary motion changes from extension to compression.

The westerly boundary is the Queen Charlotte Fault running offshore along the coast of Alaska and the Cascadia subduction zone to the north, the San Andreas Fault through California, the East Pacific Rise in the Gulf of California, and the Middle America Trench to the south.

Queen Charlotte Fault

The Queen Charlotte Fault is an active transform fault that marks the boundary of the North American and the Pacific Plates. It is Canada's right-lateral strike-slip equivalent to the San Andreas Fault to the south in California. The Queen Charlotte Fault forms a triple junction on its south with the Cascadia subduction zone and the Explorer Ridge.

Cascadia subduction zone Convergent plate boundary that stretches from northern Vancouver Island to Northern California

The Cascadia subduction zone is a convergent plate boundary that stretches from northern Vancouver Island in Canada to Northern California in the United States. It is a very long, sloping subduction zone where the Explorer, Juan de Fuca, and Gorda plates move to the east and slide below the much larger mostly continental North American Plate. The zone varies in width and lies offshore beginning near Cape Mendocino Northern California, passing through Oregon and Washington, and terminating at about Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

San Andreas Fault A continental transform fault through California between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate

The San Andreas Fault is a continental transform fault that extends roughly 1,200 kilometers (750 mi) through California. It forms the tectonic boundary between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate, and its motion is right-lateral strike-slip (horizontal). The fault divides into three segments, each with different characteristics and a different degree of earthquake risk. The slip rate along the fault ranges from 20 to 35 mm /yr.

On its western edge, the Farallon Plate has been subducting under the North American Plate since the Jurassic Period. The Farallon Plate has almost completely subducted beneath the western portion of the North American Plate leaving that part of the North American Plate in contact with the Pacific Plate as the San Andreas Fault. The Juan de Fuca, Explorer, Gorda, Rivera, Cocos and Nazca plates are remnants of the Farallon Plate.

Farallon Plate An ancient oceanic plate that has mostly subducted under the west coast of the North American Plate

The Farallon Plate was an ancient oceanic plate that began subducting under the west coast of the North American Plate—then located in modern Utah—as Pangaea broke apart during the Jurassic period. It is named for the Farallon Islands, which are located just west of San Francisco, California.

Subduction A geological process at convergent tectonic plate boundaries where one plate moves under the other

Subduction is a geological process that takes place at convergent boundaries of tectonic plates where one plate moves under another and is forced to sink due to gravity into the mantle. Regions where this process occurs are known as subduction zones. Rates of subduction are typically in centimeters per year, with the average rate of convergence being approximately two to eight centimeters per year along most plate boundaries.

The Jurassic period is a geologic period and system that spanned 56 million years from the end of the Triassic Period 201.3 million years ago (Mya) to the beginning of the Cretaceous Period 145 Mya. The Jurassic constitutes the middle period of the Mesozoic Era, also known as the Age of Reptiles. The start of the period was marked by the major Triassic–Jurassic extinction event. Two other extinction events occurred during the period: the Pliensbachian-Toarcian extinction in the Early Jurassic, and the Tithonian event at the end; neither event ranks among the "Big Five" mass extinctions, however.

The boundary along the Gulf of California is complex. The Gulf is underlain by the Gulf of California Rift Zone, a series of rift basins and transform fault segments between the northern end of the East Pacific Rise in the mouth of the gulf to the San Andreas Fault system in the vicinity of the Salton Trough rift/Brawley seismic zone. [2] [3]

It is generally accepted that a piece of the North American Plate was broken off and transported north as the East Pacific Rise propagated northward, creating the Gulf of California. However, it is as yet unclear whether the oceanic crust east of the Rise and west of the mainland coast of Mexico is actually a new plate beginning to converge with the North American Plate, consistent with the standard model of rift zone spreading centers generally.[ citation needed ]


A few hotspots are thought to exist below the North American Plate. The most notable hotspots are the Yellowstone (Wyoming), Jemez Lineament (New Mexico), and Anahim (British Columbia) hotspots. These are thought to be caused by a narrow stream of hot mantle convecting up from the Earth's core–mantle boundary called a mantle plume, [4] although some geologists think that upper mantle convection is a more likely cause. [5] [6] The Yellowstone and Anahim hotspots are thought to have first arrived during the Miocene period and are still geologically active, creating earthquakes and volcanoes. The Yellowstone hotspot is most notable for the Yellowstone Caldera and the many calderas that lie in the Snake River Plain while the Anahim hotspot is most notable for the Anahim Volcanic Belt, currently found in the Nazko Cone area.

Plate motion

For the most part, the North American Plate moves in roughly a southwest direction away from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

The motion of the plate cannot be driven by subduction as no part of the North American Plate is being subducted, except for a small section comprising part of the Puerto Rico Trench; thus other mechanisms continue to be investigated.

One recent study suggests that a mantle convective current is propelling the plate. [7]

See also

Related Research Articles

Basin and Range Province Geologic province extending through much of the western United States and Mexico

The Basin and Range Province is a vast physiographic region covering much of the inland Western United States and northwestern Mexico or from Mexico to Canada. It is defined by unique basin and range topography, characterized by abrupt changes in elevation, alternating between narrow faulted mountain chains and flat arid valleys or basins. The physiography of the province is the result of tectonic extension that began around 17 million years ago in the early Miocene epoch.

In geology, the slab gap hypothesis is one of the explanations put forward to explain several instances of crustal extension that occur inland near former subduction zones.

Divergent boundary Linear feature that exists between two tectonic plates that are moving away from each other

In plate tectonics, a divergent boundary or divergent plate boundary is a linear feature that exists between two tectonic plates that are moving away from each other. Divergent boundaries within continents initially produce rifts, which eventually become rift valleys. Most active divergent plate boundaries occur between oceanic plates and exist as mid-oceanic ridges. Divergent boundaries also form volcanic islands, which occur when the plates move apart to produce gaps that molten lava rises to fill.

Convergent boundary Region of active deformation between colliding lithospheric plates

A convergent boundary is an area on Earth where two or more lithospheric plates collide. One plate eventually slides beneath the other causing a process known as subduction. The subduction zone can be defined by a plane where many earthquakes occur, called the Benioff Zone. These collisions happen on scales of millions to tens of millions of years and can lead to volcanism, earthquakes, orogenesis, destruction of lithosphere, and deformation. Convergent boundaries occur between oceanic-oceanic lithosphere, oceanic-continental lithosphere, and continental-continental lithosphere. The geologic features related to convergent boundaries vary depending on crust types.

Mantle plume An upwelling of abnormally hot rock within the Earths mantle

A mantle plume is a proposed mechanism of convection of abnormally hot rock within the Earth's mantle. Because the plume head partly melts on reaching shallow depths, a plume is often invoked as the cause of volcanic hotspots, such as Hawaii or Iceland, and large igneous provinces such as the Deccan and Siberian traps. Some such volcanic regions lie far from tectonic plate boundaries, while others represent unusually large-volume volcanism near plate boundaries or in large igneous provinces.

African Plate Tectonic plate underlying Africa west of the East African Rift

The African Plate is a major tectonic plate straddling the equator as well as the prime meridian. It includes much of the continent of Africa, as well as oceanic crust which lies between the continent and various surrounding ocean ridges. Between 60 million years ago and 10 million years ago, the Somali Plate began rifting from the African Plate along the East African Rift. Since the continent of Africa consists of crust from both the African and the Somali plates, some literature refers to the African Plate as the Nubian Plate to distinguish it from the continent as a whole.

Triple junction The point where the boundaries of three tectonic plates meet

A triple junction is the point where the boundaries of three tectonic plates meet. At the triple junction each of the three boundaries will be one of 3 types - a ridge (R), trench (T) or transform fault (F) - and triple junctions can be described according to the types of plate margin that meet at them. Of the many possible types of triple junction only a few are stable through time. The meeting of 4 or more plates is also theoretically possible but junctions will only exist instantaneously.

Mid-ocean ridge An underwater mountain system formed by plate tectonic spreading

A mid-ocean ridge (MOR) is a seafloor mountain system formed by plate tectonics. It typically has a depth of ~ 2,600 meters (8,500 ft) and rises about two kilometers above the deepest portion of an ocean basin. This feature is where seafloor spreading takes place along a divergent plate boundary. The rate of seafloor spreading determines the morphology of the crest of the mid-ocean ridge and its width in an ocean basin. The production of new seafloor and oceanic lithosphere results from mantle upwelling in response to plate separation. The melt rises as magma at the linear weakness in the oceanic crust, and emerges as lava, creating new crust and lithosphere upon cooling. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is a spreading center that bisects the North and South Atlantic basins; hence the origin of the name 'mid-ocean ridge'. Most oceanic spreading centers are not in the middle of their hosting ocean basis but regardless, are called mid-ocean ridges. Mid-ocean ridges around the globe are linked by plate tectonic boundaries and appear similar to the seam of a baseball. The mid-ocean ridge system thus is the longest mountain range on Earth, reaching about 65,000 km (40,000 mi).

Explorer Ridge A mid-ocean ridge west of British Columbia, Canada

The Explorer Ridge is a mid-ocean ridge, a divergent tectonic plate boundary located about 241 km (150 mi) west of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. It lies at the northern extremity of the Pacific spreading axis. To its east is the Explorer Plate, which together with the Juan de Fuca Plate and the Gorda Plate to its south, is what remains of the once-vast Farallon Plate which has been largely subducted under the North American Plate. The Explorer Ridge consists of one major segment, the Southern Explorer Ridge, and several smaller segments. It runs northward from the Sovanco Fracture Zone to the Queen Charlotte Triple Junction, a point where it meets the Queen Charlotte Fault and the northern Cascadia subduction zone.

Anahim hotspot

The Anahim hotspot is a volcanic hotspot located in the West-Central Interior of British Columbia, Canada. One of the few hotspots in North America, the Anahim plume is responsible for the creation of the Anahim Volcanic Belt. This is a 300 km (190 mi) long chain of volcanoes and other magmatic features that have undergone erosion. The chain extends from the community of Bella Bella in the west to near the small city of Quesnel in the east. While most volcanoes are created by geological activity at tectonic plate boundaries, the Anahim hotspot is located hundreds of kilometres away from the nearest plate boundary.

Galápagos hotspot

The Galápagos hotspot is a volcanic hotspot in the East Pacific Ocean responsible for the creation of the Galapagos Islands as well as three major aseismic ridge systems, Carnegie, Cocos and Malpelo which are on two tectonic plates. The hotspot is located near the Equator on the Nazca Plate not far from the divergent plate boundary with the Cocos Plate. The tectonic setting of the hotspot is complicated by the Galapagos Triple Junction of the Nazca and Cocos plates with the Pacific Plate. The movement of the plates over the hotspot is determined not solely by the spreading along the ridge but also by the relative motion between the Pacific Plate and the Cocos and Nazca Plates.

The Terceira Rift is a geological rift located amidst the Azores islands in the Atlantic Ocean. It runs between the Azores Triple Junction to the west and the Azores–Gibraltar Transform Fault to the southeast. It separates the Eurasian Plate to the north from the African Plate to the south. The Terceira Rift is named for Terceira Island through which it passes.

This is a list of articles related to plate tectonics and tectonic plates.

Slab pull is that part of the motion of a tectonic plate that is caused by its subduction. Plate motion is partly driven by the weight of cold, dense plates sinking into the mantle at oceanic trenches. This force and slab suction account for almost all of the force driving plate tectonics. The ridge push at rifts contributes only 5 to 10%.

Geology of the Pacific Ocean

The Pacific Ocean evolved in the Mesozoic from the Panthalassic Ocean, which had formed when Rodinia rifted apart around 750 Ma. The first ocean floor which is part of the current Pacific Plate began 160 Ma to the west of the central Pacific and subsequently developed into the largest oceanic plate on Earth.


  1. "Sizes of Tectonic or Lithospheric Plates". 2014-03-05. Retrieved 2016-01-11.
  2. USGS Professional Paper 1515
  3. USGS Farallon Plate maps
  4. "Hotspots": Mantle thermal plumes
  5. Earth's interior: Raising hot spots
  6. Upper-mantle origin of the Yellowstone hotspot
  7. Eaton, David W.; Frederiksen, Andrew (2007). "Seismic evidence for convection-driven motion of the North American plate". Nature. 446 (7134): 428–431. doi:10.1038/nature05675. PMID   17377580.
  8. Feldman, Jay (2005). When the Mississippi Ran Backwards : Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes. Free Press. ISBN   978-0-7432-4278-3.