Natural Wisdom: What do Tectonic Plate Boundaries Actually Look Like?

The theory of plate tectonics is fairly well-known and at a fundamental level, fairly easy to understand. But on a recent trip to New Zealand (a country heavily shaped by plate tectonics), we pondered the question: what can you actually see if you were to look down at the boundary between two tectonic plates. New Zealand is a perfect example. The boundary between the Pacific Plate and the Indo-Australian plate is quite obvious. Here, the boundary between two plates looks like this:

The Alpine Fault
The Alpine Fault – Courtesy of NASA

This is a elevation-coloured map of the Alpine Fault near the Southern Alps in New Zealand. This fault is a direct result of the plate boundary that runs along it.

There are three types of plate boundary:

  1. Transform Boundary – Where the movement between plates is predominantly horizontal
  2. Divergent Boundary – Where two plates are moving away from each other
  3. Convergent Boundary – Where two plates are moving towards one another

The Alpine Fault is a result of a convergent boundary. A divergent boundary, as one would expect, creates rift valleys that look something like this:

rift valley
Rift Valley in Ecuador. Shot by creationlaw

And a convergent boundary – you guessed it – creates these guys:

Black and white image of Mont Blanc Massif
Mont Blanc Massif. (Prints available for purchase).



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