Fine-Scale Modeling of Global Plate Tectonics

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Science  27 Aug 2010:
Vol. 329, Issue 5995, pp. 1020-1021
DOI: 10.1126/science.1194858

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The tectonic motions on the surface of Earth and much of its geological activity can be explained as a part of mantle convection. Relatively rigid lithospheric plates form the top, cold boundary layer of the convecting mantle, and the potential energy released during the cooling of the planet is balanced by viscous dissipation during deformation of mantle rocks (1, 2). A theory of plate tectonics has to account for compositional and rock strength variations, both of which are affected by the dynamics of convective flow. Such behavior can lead to nonlinear feedback and result in heterogeneity, possibly down to sub-meter scale. On page 1033 of this issue, Stadler et al. (3) present a groundbreaking numerical model for plate tectonics that should help to resolve questions relating to how the strongly deforming and narrow plate boundaries form and evolve.