Scientists Find First Evidence That Weather Affects Movement of Tectonic Plates

By Patrick Morgan | April 14, 2011 10:08 am

What’s the News: Geologists have known for years that tectonic plates affect climate patterns. Now they say that the opposite is also true, finding that intensifying climate events can move tectonic plates. Using models based on known monsoonal and plate movement patterns, geologists say that the Indian Plate has accelerated by about 20% over the past 10 million years. “The significance of this finding lies in recognising for the first time that long-term climate changes have the potential to act as a force and influence the motion of tectonic plates,” Australian National University researcher Giampiero Iaffaldano told COSMOS.

How the Heck:

  • The researchers plugged information from research on monsoonal patterns and the Indian Plate’s movement into a model, which indicated that the monsoonal erosion that has battered the eastern Himalaya Mountains for the past 10 million years erodes enough material to account for the plate’s counter-clockwise rotation. By gradually shaving off rocks from the eastern flank and decreasing crustal thickness, the monsoonal rains essentially lighten the load on the eastern part of the Indian Plate, causing the plate to actually turn (at geological speed).
  • The scientists ruled out the traditional powerhouse behind tectonic movement—mantle convection—because the mantle’s influence works on longer time frames than 10 million years. It doesn’t account, for example, for the Indian Plate’s geologically rapid velocity increase of more than 5 millimeters per year since 3.6 million years ago.

What’s the Context:

  • It’s long been known that tectonic movements have slow but huge effects on long-term climate patterns. As the Indian Plate slammed into the Eurasian Plate, for example, it closed up a sea and built the Himalayan Mountains, changing wind and rain patterns in the process. This study is the first to show the converse.
  • Dubbed the lithosphere, Earth’s outer 60 miles of solid material is split up into pieces called tectonic plates. Over long periods of time, these plates move, mainly due to the forces of churning magma underneath.
  • At present, plates generally move at the same rate that your fingernails grow. In the past, they’ve moved at different rates depending on variations in the forces involved, erosion patterns, and other factors.
  • One major way geologists track plate movement patterns and velocity is by looking at magnetic minerals in age-dated rocks: When igneous rocks cool, the magnetic minerals in them align with the magnetic north pole (which moves over time); as tectonic plates move, the original alignment changes.
  • Recently, scientists have suggested that even the young Earth had tectonic plates and that ancient continental collisions may have provided the air we breathe.

Not So Fast: These geologists are looking at time patterns on the order of millions of years, so you don’t have to worry about global warming causing stronger earthquakes (unless you plan on living that long).

The Future Holds: Next up, the geologists want to see whether climate has a similar effect in other regions, such as the Andes and the Rocky Mountains.

Reference: Giampiero Iaffaldanoa, Laurent Hussonb, and Hans-Peter Bunged. “Monsoon speeds up Indian plate motion.” Earth and Planetary Science Letters. doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2011.02.026

Image: Wikimedia Commons / USG

  • JaberwokWSA

    Examining the map above, you’ll notice that Africa seems to be moving away from all of its neighbors. That is, of course, impossible as the interior would have to go somewhere. So, the conclusion is that Africa is the only place not moving, and all the others are moving away from Africa.

    By the way, I suspect that the North American plate is actually composed of two plates, the northern and southern, with the boundary along the St Lawrance River, Lake Erie, Wabash River, New Madrid, Mo., to Little Rock and Oklahoma City. Check out the USGS site for US earthquakes over time, (, and you will note a pattern of smaller magnitude quakes along the line. A few parallel lines can also be noted, such as along the cost of Maine, New York City, Charleston WV, eastern Tennessee, to Dallas. This would also explain the formation of the Appalachian Mountains.

  • Matt

    JaberwokWSA the African place is moving towards the Eurasian plate, towards Europe. The African Rift Valley is the birthplace of what will become a new ocean, and the Horn of Africa will become a large island.

  • Adrienne Larocque

    As I recall, the St. Lawrence River is there because it marks the site of an aulacogen…

  • Liberty

    Most people separate the electronics involved in plate movement, electronic activity is part of the suns power and a common factor on thunder storms. The earths core is a living star. The electromagnetic field and ozone is created by the core. Conspiracy theorists often have proven projects such as HAARP does effect the atmosphere. It is only logical that a power surge by Any source will effect the earths core, even thunderstorms ect. However the actual effects of electronic wireless devices and the total power grid on the surface will create a cooling effect on the earths core. Therefore the ozone will develope “holes” not because of chemical change but a weaker electromagnetic field, the poles will shift in our life time. Because wireless electronics have more indirect travel patterns. Than a laid power grid. With the weaker field, more solor electronic power will enter our atmosphere. The results be a part of common reason for a planets death such as mars when the surface accumulated more electronic activity the cooling core seems to allow the sun to “burn off” the atmosphere.

  • Liberty

    Does not mean some other force like massive earthquakes that can potentially increase the core temperature by introduction of crustal material into the core, being combustable. Will most likely INCREASE. The core temperature. Which would cause more earthquakes by the expanding crust. The power created by sponantanios combustion has to go somewhere so it will “surface”.

  • John Moore

    @ Liberty – really!? Conspiracy theorists have proven that a satillite effects weather? Seems like an oxymoron if I ever heard one……

  • John Moore

    @ Jaberwok – Did you notice that those little arrows around Africa were pointing in both directions?

  • Jim Kawakami

    I have seen brief comments in the news that the melting glaciers and warming waters rain caused an increase in ocean water weight over the tectonic plates leading to increased earthquakes and volcanic eruptions much faster than other factors because of the extra strains involved. Anyone know of any studies or is this theory wrong!

  • Jim Kawakami

    no change, but my e-mail was published!

  • Jim Kawakami

    Any affect of increasing weight of water over oceans on volcanic eruptions and earthquakes due to Climate Change?

  • Solitha

    Jim, I was wondering about that myself, along with the idea of the plates themselves expanding as the overall heat rises – much like concrete slabs, where we have to place wood or gaps between the slabs to prevent them from colliding and buckling.

    I’d imagine the “water weight” would be measureable via pressure differences on the ocean floor. Not sure how we’d be able to tell if a plate is expanding though.

  • TheReviewer

    I didn’t see any ’80s beats or disco… I’m sad.

  • Mambru

    We have and need to remember that all of this are theories… Who is sure that we have an iron core….

  • Krugwaffle

    This article is an example of how anything can be proven scientifically if you simply discard enough of the evidence to the contrary.

    The NEW scientific process:

    1. Figure out where you want to be in the political power structure in 5-10 years.
    2. Decide what ‘scientific discovery’ will provide that boost to your status.
    3. Find an experiment that will have this scientific discovery as it’s outcome.
    4. Ignore every other indication to the contrary.
    5. Publish, publish, publish.
    6. Repeat step 5 as necessary.

  • Jo Diggs

    Certainly seems logical wehn you think about it.

  • John Lerch

    Krugwaffle you’re so full of it. There was no political tone in this article. The only political tone was yours.

  • Kelk

    This is related to the research one of the professors (Kip Hodges) at my school (SESE) is doing. He’s looking at how sedimentary records link Himalayan erosion rates and monsoon intensity through time. Pretty cool stuff!!!!1

  • Dave Porter

    Is anyone measuring the shifting weight of the ice cap at the south pole?
    With so much melting going on, the weight of the ice on the plate underneath it must be lessening.
    And perhaps the same thing is happening elsewhere, e.g. the Arctic and even (to a much lesser extent) the Himalayas.

  • Jim St

    I have noted in the past some potential of weather and quake relationship. Also know many report possible relationships with moon-sun gravitational effects, at times there have even been claims of other planet involvements. A few of the other posts here mention additional weight of melted water from glaciers having causal relationship with plates.
    I have also noticed some degree of static electricity just prior to quakes, possibly caused by piezoelectric discharges from a variety of minerals due to pressure changes. Some have claimed that animals seem to have reactions prior to quakes. So many possibilities, and yet no one has put together a fool proof manner to predict quakes. We can only hope that someday such forecasts will be as good as our weather forecasts are today. Areas could then be evacuated and power plants could be shut down, lives and other valued items could be saved…

  • dave chamberlin

    There are conflicting opinions on the history of the tectonic plates in earths distant past. There is one theory that the tectonic plates starting moving in the ice ball earth period that lasted up to 600 million years ago and covered the entire earth. I don’t have an opinion because I’m not educated on the subject, but I think it important to point out that we don’t have the answers yet on the history of the tectonic plates.

  • seabear70

    What I find interesting is that the end of the article admits that this cannot be an effect of global warming. This is despite the fact that the title’s wording is intended to suggest a link between the two. Furthermore the intent is obviously paying off because I followed a link stating that scientist had proven that global warming is causing earthquakes.

    In the end, the author should be blacklisted from any further publishing by Discover Magazine for irresponsible yellow journalism.

  • Bill

    In the past, we thought the Earth’s core was molten from residual heat left over from the Earth’s formation. We now know that the heat from about 4.5 billion years ago would have dissipated beyond what we have today.

    The densest elements such as osmium (the king of density), gold and platinum (about twice as dense as lead) tungsten, uranium and other heavy weights would have sunk to the core a long time ago making them relatively scarce on the Earth’s surface. What we get is what has been belched up in volcanoes.

    Some of these dense elements such as uranium are fissionable and are responsible for providing sufficient heat to drive plate tectonics, volcanoes, and generate our magnetic field keeping the Earth alive.

    Plate tectonics and volcanism provide and replenish our atmosphere, which is constantly leaking away from Earth and blown away by solar winds. Our atmosphere and magnetic field shields Earth’s surface from deadly excessive solar radiation and ionized particles.

    In the far distant future, when the fissionable materials run out, the core will cool and the tectonic plates will freeze in place, volcanoes will stop erupting and Earth will become a dead, Mars-like planet devoid of sufficient atmosphere to breathe and filter solar radiation. The oceans will evaporate. The generator that provides our magnetic field will wind down to a stop leaving residual magnetism too weak to deflect solar particles.

    Be thankful for a live Earth. It has provided well for us even though it sometimes gets a bit violent.

  • Daniel J. Andrews

    What I find interesting is that the end of the article admits that this cannot be an effect of global warming. This is despite the fact that the title’s wording is intended to suggest a link between the two.

    Unless they’ve changed the title, I don’t think the wording is intended to suggest a link–the title says “weather”, and “weather” is not climate. Instead, I think they tried to avoid misleading. The article seems to be talking about weather events over millions of years so technically replacing the word “weather” with “climate” would give a more accurate title. That fact that they went with the less accurate title may indicate they’re trying to avoid the very thing you accuse them of–i.e. irresponsible yellow journalism. Imagine the troll influx we’d see if they used the word “climate” in the title.

    Incidentally, I’m not surprised climate could affect plates, but I am surprised they found a way to measure it (assuming their methods stand up to scrutiny).

    Krugwaffle: right indeed. I took the liberty of making it a bit more accurate if you don’t mind.

    1. Figure out where you want to be in the political power structure in 5-10 years.
    2. Decide what ‘scientific discovery’ will threaten your political or religious ideology.
    3. Find an experiment that will contradict this scientific discovery.
    4. Ignore every other indication to the contrary.
    5. Publish, rant, lie on every blog, radio show, tv-network, think-tank website available.*
    6. Repeat step 5 as necessary.

    *Forget about publishing in real science journals. You need actual knowledge, not misconceptions, myths and total fabrications. Yeah, I know…that’s very unfair. Who made them the guardians of reality? My gut should count just as much as their facts.

  • James Lee

    If everyone on the east coast faced north and upon a signal denoting that all other persons on the North American plate acted in the same way with the Southern continent alligned southerly, with proper timing we could widen Panama Canal by farting.
    peace jla

  • e-ticaret

    nice blog nice post you site add bookmark thanks

  • Anna Weng

    You’re really a terrific pro in this arena. Many thanks for remaining there humans like me.

  • Uncle B

    Egg-shell like in nature, earths crust has been exposed to heat from U.S. nuclear plants in a geologically acute manner these past 50 years, and will be for the foreseable future. Will this acute and localized heating have any effect?


    nice post very interestingggggggg


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