Measuring the motion of tectonic plates is part of the science of geodesy. To define the shape of the Earth, NOAA’s National Geodetic Survey, part of the National Ocean Service, uses a variety of techniques to measure the planet’s rate of rotation, its plate motion, and the ways that gravity affects certain scientific processes. Learn more: What is Geodesy?
The Earth is in a constant state of change. Earth’s crust, called the lithosphere, consists of 15 to 20 moving tectonic plates. The plates can be thought of like pieces of a cracked shell that rest on the hot, molten rock of Earth’s mantle and fit snugly against one another. The heat from radioactive processes within the planet’s interior causes the plates to move, sometimes toward and sometimes away from each other. This movement is called plate motion, or tectonic shift.
Our planet looks very different from the way it did 250 million years ago, when there was only one continent, called Pangaea, and one ocean, called Panthalassa. As Earth’s mantle heated and cooled over many millennia, the outer crust broke up and commenced the plate motion that continues today.
The huge continent eventually broke apart, creating new and ever-changing land masses and oceans. Have you ever noticed how the east coast of South America looks like it would fit neatly into the west coast of Africa? That’s because it did, millions of years before tectonic shift separated the two great continents.
Earth’s land masses move toward and away from each other at an average rate of about 1.5 centimeters (0.6 inches) a year. That’s about the rate that human toenails grow! Some regions, such as coastal California, move quite fast in geological terms — almost 5 centimeters (two inches) a year — relative to the more stable interior of the continental United States. At the “seams” where tectonic plates come in contact, the crustal rocks may grind violently against each other, causing earthquakes and volcano eruptions. The relatively fast movement of the tectonic plates under California explains the frequent earthquakes that occur there.