Insight Into: Plate Tectonics

Video Player

Video Versions

Can you see the continents as puzzle pieces, fitting together? The "puzzle pieces," now known as tectonic plates, do move, slowly reshaping the surface of Earth.

Produced by the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Office of Public Outreach in collaboration with the NASA Earth Observatory.

All images, illustrations, and videos courtesy of NASA except:
·       Alfred Wegener photo courtesy of Bildarchiv Foto Marburg
·       Drawings of continental drift by Alfred Wegener from The Movements of the Continents and the Oceans
·       Lystrosaurus illustration courtesy of Nobu Tamura
·       Sea creature illustration copyright The National Library of Israel, Shapell Family Digitization Project _and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Department of Geography – Historic Cities Research Project
·       Photo of Half Dome courtesy of D.L. Peck, U.S. Geological Survey
·       Photo of Kanchenjunga Mountain courtesy of Wikimedia user Anirban c8
·       Mountain formation illustrations by Marc Lussier (STScI)
·       Aerial photo of the Himalayan Mountains courtesy of Wikimedia user Pipimaru
Music courtesy of Associated Production Music
Written by Andrea Gianopoulos
Designed by Marc Lussier

From space, the Earth spins.
Text, Looking down on Earth from space, it's easy to imagine the continents as puzzle pieces.
We get closer. A map of earth. Text, The east coast of South America appears to fit nicely into the southwestern coast of Africa. Several arrows drag the two continents ever closer. A man's face appears in black and white beside a series of maps that bring the continents together into one.
Text, In the early 1900s, meteorologist and polar researcher Alfred Wegener realized the same thing.
Red pin points placed on India and Antarctica. The locations turn yellow and a dash connects them. An animal appears atop the map. Text, He read scientific papers that listed identical fossils found on opposite sides of the oceans.
North America highlighted. Text, He also discovered that large-scale geologic features like mountain ranges on different continents closely align when the two contents were brought together.
The map disappears and Alfred Wegener's portrait shrinks. Text, Wegener's Pangaea. Wegener suggested that the continents were once a large mass, now called Pangaea, that subsequently broke into separate continents that drifted apart.
His portrait disappears. Text, Continental Drift. In a time lapse, the continents separate then merge into the locations we know today.
Text, In the 100 years since Wegener first proposed his theory of continental drift, scientists have learned much about how Earth's tectonic plates move.
That plate movement generates earthquakes, volcanism and mountains.