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Plate Tectonics Effects Climate Change

written by: Raunekk•edited by: Donna Cosmato•updated: 6/14/2010

There are a few phenomena which, though not man-made, affect the climate of the atmosphere to a great extent. Plate tectonics movement is one such effect that has been affecting climate change for a long time now. The article describes how does the movement of plate tectonics affect climate change?

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    Introduction

    Going back to geography classes, we learned the surface of the Earth is composed of different large plates, which keep moving at a rate of approximately 3 centimeters yearly. These plates shift in various directions due to the convection currents that are below them. However, the radioactive decay found in the core of the Earth is the primary force behind the heat generated to move these plates. Plate tectonics, or continental drift, which is the study of the Earth's crust, consists of volcanic and seismic activity around its margins that sometimes leads to earthquakes, volcanoes, and development of mountains. So how does the movement of plate tectonics affect climate change? Let us find out.

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    Effects on Climate

    Generally, plate tectonics causes a change in the ocean currents and in turn generates more heat. When these tectonic plates shift, the creation of the volcanic eruptions increases the degree of carbon dioxide (CO2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) in the atmosphere. This is what leads to a rise in the temperature levels globally. Higher concentrations of SO2 could mean the Earth is becoming warmer at four times the rate of CO2 concentration. On the contrary, if the move is insignificant, the temperature levels record a fall. A new dimension revealed by these studies also hints to the increased heat leading to a shift in the tectonic plates. Thus, we can conclude that plate tectonic movement and change in climate go hand in hand.

    About 200 million years ago, the present seven continents were a single piece of land known as Pangea. With the change in the tectonic plates, this larger land drifted to form different smaller land areas. Climate is one of the systems adversely affected by these movements. For instance, a larger land area is likely to follow a strong seasonal pattern of climate. One fine example of the plate tectonics effects on climate is the conversion of the flourishing forests of the Andes Mountains into deserts, leading to increased temperature levels. Interestingly, a study on the Andes Mountains made by scientists at Harvard University suggests the movement of the tectonic plates reduced the amount of rain and further diminished the level of soil erosion. However, what disturbs the global climate cycle is the change in the location of water bodies that help in regulating heat and moisture on Earth.

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    Determining Climate Change

    There are various important indicators that help in determining a change in the climate. Glaciers, insects, vegetation, change in sea level, and dendroclimatology are included in this list. Many weather stations detect the temperatures, rains, and wind movement too. Weather balloons and weather satellites are devices that are launched into the atmosphere and space to avail information on the temperature of the globe. Environmentalists also conduct studies on glaciers to estimate the amount of time since the ice formed in the particular location. The most popular method is that of studying the sedimentary deposits of the Earth. In addition to these, dendroclimatology helps analyze the level of precipitation.

    Plate tectonics movements have done their share of harm to the climate. If this scenario remains same, it would not be a surprise to see Earth following a ‘greenhouse’ climate – and an ‘icehouse’ climate for longer span of time.