Impact Of Plate Tectonics

Plate tectonics is of very great significance as it represents the first theory that provides a unified explanation of the Earth's major surface features. As such it has enabled an unprecedented linking of many different aspects of geology, which had previously been considered independent and unrelated. A deeper understanding of geology has ensued from the interpretation of many branches of geology within the basic framework provided by plate tectonics. Thus, for example, explanations can be provided for the past distributions of flora and fauna, the spatial relationships of volcanic rock suites at plate margins, the distribution in space and time of the conditions of different metamorphic facies, the scheme of deformation in mountain belts, or orogens, and the association of different types of economic deposit.

Recognition of the dynamic nature of the apparently solid Earth has led to the realization that plate tectonic processes may have had a major impact on other aspects of the Earth system in the past. Changes in volcanic activity in general, and at mid-ocean ridges in particular, would have changed the chemistry of the atmosphere and of seawater. Changes in the net accretion rate at mid-ocean ridges could explain major changes in sea level in the past, and the changing configuration of the continents, and the uplift of mountain belts would have affected both oceanic and atmospheric circulation. The nature and implications of these changes, in particular for the Earth's climate, are explored in Chapter 13.

Clearly some of these implications were documented by Wegener, notably in relation to the distribution of fauna and flora in the past, and regional paleoclimates. Now, however, it is realized that plate tectonic processes impact on the physics and chemistry of the atmosphere and oceans, and on life on Earth, in many more ways, thus linking processes in the atmosphere, oceans, and solid Earth in one dynamic global system.

The fact that plate tectonics is so successful in unifying so many aspects of Earth science should not be taken to indicate that it is completely understood. Indeed, it is the critical testing of the implications of plate tectonic theory that has led to modifications and extrapolations, for example in the consideration of the relevance of plate tectonic processes in continental areas (Section 2.10.5) and the more distant geologic past (Chapter 11). It is to be hoped that plate tectonic theory will be employed cautiously and critically.

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