Earth's Crustal Plates

Introduction
Crustal plates form the outer layer of the Earth. There are seven major plates and many smaller plates. These tectonic plates are formed from the Earth's crust and uppermost part of the mantle.

Types of tectonic plates
There are two types of tectonic plates. Continental plates are made primarily of granitic rocks and are much thicker and older. Oceanic plates are thinner and younger. Together these plates form the lithosphere.

Major and some minor crustal plates, USGS

Earth's Tectonic Plates, USGS

Continental plates
Igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks form the continents. The basement rocks of the continents are granitic. The minerals in granitic rocks are lighter than the oceanic crust. The density of the continental crust is also less than the mantle.

Thickness continental plates
The thickness of the continental plates are between 25 and 70 kilometers thick. The thicker continental crust is located where great mountain ranges like the Himalayas have formed.

Oceanic crust
Oceanic crust is constantly being formed at a mid ocean ridge. Molten rock from the mantle forms beneath spreading ridges where two crustal plates are separating. The lava erupts from vents forming pillow basalt as the plates move apart.

Movement of crustal plates
The oceanic crust moves across ocean basins like a conveyor belt to subduction zones where it is destroyed as it subducts beneath a lighter plate. The oceanic crust is only about 10 kilometers thick but is much denser and heavier than the continental crust.

Naming the tectonic plates

Major plates
Scientists have named the largest plates for the continents and oceans they contain. The seven largest plates are the North American Plate, Eurasian Plate, African Plate, Antarctic Plate, South American Plate, Indo-Australian Plate and the Pacific Plate.

Smaller plates
The rest of the plates are important but smaller. Scientists do not agree on the number of these small plates. For example, off the coast of Northern California and Oregon you will find information listing the Blanco and the Juan de Fuca Plates. Other authorities list the entire landmass as one plate and call it the Juan de Fuca Plate.

Indo-Australian Plate
Some geologists also list the Indo-Australian Plate as the Australian Plate and the Indian Plate increasing the number of large important plates to eight instead of seven as mentioned above.

More Plate Tectonic Links

Mid Ocean Ridge The global mid-ocean-ridge system is the longest chain of mountains on Earth and was not discovered until the 20th Century.

Earthquake Epicenter The epicenter of an earthquake is a point on the Earth's surface, not where the earthquake originates.

Caribbean Plate This plate is small but very complex. It has a subduction zone, transform fault, and triple junction.

What is an Earthquake Find out what causes the Earth to shake, rattle and roll during an earthquake. 


Convergent Boundary There are two types of boundaries where plates converge. They produce great mountain ranges and large earthquakes.

Crustal Plates There are large and small plates that cover the Earth. Subduction zones form where these plates are recycled.

Plate Tectonics Find out lots of fascinating facts and interesting trivia on plate tectonics.

Kids Fun Science The links on our home page include information about volcanoes, science activities, plate tectonics, the rock cycle and much more.