Hexbyte Glen Cove New model of a fundamental process behind the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates

Hexbyte Glen Cove

Pacific Ring of Fire. Credit: Gringer (talk) 23:52, 10 February 2009 (UTC), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A research team from University of Lisbon (Portugal) and Johannes Gutenberg University (Germany) has developed for the first time an advanced numerical model of one of the main processes behind the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates.

The that form the Earth’s surface are like puzzle pieces that are in constant, very —on average, they move only up to around 10 centimeters a year. But these puzzle pieces don’t quite fit together: there are zones on one plate that end up plunging under another—the so-called , central to the dynamics of the planet. This movement is slow, but it can lead to moments of great energy release and, over thousands of years, large mountain ranges or marine trenches are formed in these regions.

How do these subduction zones originate, and how do they evolve over time? Geologists already knew that in these zones, on a of thousands of years, this process can stagnate and reverse itself, giving rise to new subduction zones. But it was still necessary to know how this happens, and to include in the models the various (and enormous) forces involved in this process. For the first time, it was possible to simulate in three dimensions one of the most common processes of formation of new subduction zones, ensuring that all forces are dynamically and realistically modeled, including Earth’s own gravity.

“Subduction zones are one of the main features of our planet and the main driver of plate tectonics and the global dynamics of the planet. Subduction zones are also the places where earthquakes of great magnitude occur, as is the case of the Pacific Ring of Fire, the largest system of subduction zones in the world. For this reason, it is extremely important to understand how new subduction zones start and how this process takes place”, explains Jaime Almeida, first author of this study, researcher at Instituto Dom Luiz, at Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon (Ciências ULisboa).

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