Research ArticleGEOPHYSICS

What drives tectonic plates?

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Science Advances  30 Oct 2019:
Vol. 5, no. 10, eaax4295
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aax4295

Abstract

Does Earth’s mantle drive plates, or do plates drive mantle flow? This long-standing question may be ill posed, however, as both the lithosphere and mantle belong to a single self-organizing system. Alternatively, this question is better recast as follows: Does the dynamic balance between plates and mantle change over long-term tectonic reorganizations, and at what spatial wavelengths are those processes operating? A hurdle in answering this question is in designing dynamic models of mantle convection with realistic tectonic behavior evolving over supercontinent cycles. By devising these models, we find that slabs pull plates at rapid rates and tear continents apart, with keels of continents only slowing down their drift when they are not attached to a subducting plate. Our models show that the tectonic tessellation varies at a higher degree than mantle flow, which partly unlocks the conceptualization of plate tectonics and mantle convection as a unique, self-consistent system.

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