Do plate tectonics affect climate?


Do plate tectonics affect climate?

Plate tectonic theory:

Plate tectonic theory explains the interactions between large sections of the uppermost layer of the earth, also called the lithosphere. The lithosphere is composed of large pieces of crust and upper mantle, called plates, that move slowly due to the convection currents in the underlying mantle layer. Tectonic activity is responsible for geologic events such as earthquakes, volcanoes as well as the formation of mountain ranges and the positions of the continents and oceans.

Answer and Explanation:

Plate tectonic activity has a considerable impact on climate.

Plate tectonic activity affects climate both regionally and globally.

As land masses slowly move across the surface of the earth due to plate tectonic activity, the climate of each land mass will be altered. As a plate moves towards the polar regions of the earth, those areas will be exposed to less direct sunlight, which will result in a cooler climate. The opposite occurs for land masses that move toward the equator. Furthermore, regional climate is strongly affected by the presence of mountain ranges. Mountain ranges form when tectonic plates converge, forcing the lithosphere to push up and buckle. Mountain ranges will locally alter the paths of air currents. The most dramatic regional impact of a mountain range is the formation of a rain shadow, an area with reduced rainfall, on the leeward side of mountains. Precipitation is a primary factor in regional climate, because it is a determinate of the type and extent of vegetation that will thrive. Vegetation influences climate primarily through photosynthesis, the consumption of carbon dioxide and release of oxygen and water vapor.

The global impacts of plate tectonics are influenced by two primary sources; volcanic eruptions and ocean currents. Volcanoes commonly form at plate boundaries, the sections where separate plates meet, when hot magma creates a path through the crust. Volcanic eruptions take many forms, some gentle and some violent. Violent eruptions release large clouds of ash, dust and gases into the atmosphere, where they can impact climate for months to years. Ash, dust and sulfur act in the atmosphere to block incoming solar radiation and thus have a cooling affect on the climate. In contrast, periods of increased and sustained volcanic activity can lead to an accumulation of greenhouse gases that create warming climate conditions.

Ocean currents are responsible for distributing the heat from the sun around the earth. The movement of the plates modifies the shapes of the oceans and the land masses. The formation of large continents, the opening of seaways and even the shapes of the coastlines and ocean floor are determining factors for the ocean current paths. The ocean absorbs the majority of incoming solar radiation, which is most intense in the equatorial latitudes and creates warmer waters. This heat is then transferred around the globe via the ocean currents and the corresponding air currents. This movement of heat via the ocean currents helps stabilize global temperatures.

Learn more about this topic:

Plate Tectonics: A Unified Theory for Change of the Earth's Surface

from CLEP Natural Sciences: Study Guide & Test Prep

Chapter 11 / Lesson 7

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