North American Plate: Tectonics, Movement & Facts

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  • 0:00 Earth's Layers
  • 0:29 Tectonic Plates
  • 1:59 The North American Plate
  • 3:54 Hot Spot
  • 4:31 Age of the Rocks
  • 5:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Sheila Morrissey

Sheila has a master's degree in geology and has taught middle school through university-level science courses.

Expert Contributor
Matthew Bergstresser

Matthew has a Master of Arts degree in Physics Education. He has taught high school chemistry and physics for 14 years.

Learn about the North American Plate and how it is moving relative to other tectonic plates. In this lesson, we will explore the three major types of plate boundaries that you will find at the North American Plate's edge.

Earth's Layers

To begin, let's consider the Earth and its layers. The Earth is layered with the core at its center, then the mantle, and the crust on the outside. The crust and uppermost part of the mantle is the layer between the crust and the outer core. Together, the crust and the upper mantle make up the solid layer called the lithosphere. The lithosphere is made up of large moving and broken pieces of rock called tectonic plates.

Layers of the Earth

Tectonic Plates

The Earth and its tectonic plates are sometimes described using a hard-boiled egg model with a yolk for a core, an egg-white mantle, and a cracked but still intact shell representing the Earth's lithosphere. The issue with this model begins when we start to discuss the movement of the tectonic plates on the Earth's surface. When you think of a hard-boiled egg, the shell does not do much sliding or moving. So, as we think about the plates on the Earth's surface moving, let's move on to a sandwich-cookie model even though it doesn't have a sphere or Earth-like shape.

Imagine the bottom layer of a cookie sandwich as the Earth's core. Maybe you can even picture a large Whoopie pie, with its dark top and bottom layers and creamy center! The creamy filling is the Earth's mantle and the top layer is the lithosphere. We can break the cookie lithosphere into two tectonic plates and find ways to slide them across the mantle. The cookie tectonic plates can slide sideways past each other, likely getting stuck and leaving cookie crumbs as they move. They can move together, crashing into each other and being pushed upwards or one piece can sink beneath another. They can also pull apart as some tectonic plates do, exposing the sugary filling below.

These tectonic processes work similarly on the Earth's crust, but on a much bigger and slower scale. There are several large tectonic plates and many small ones on Earth's surface.

The Earth

The North American Plate and Plate Boundaries

One of the large plates is the North American Plate. This plate includes most of the North American continent, Greenland, and part of Iceland and Siberia. Its motion can be measured on the order of a few centimeters per year.

The edges of the North American Plate exhibit all three of the major plate boundary type of movements. These types of movement include transform, where plates slide past each other; convergent, where plates come together; and divergent, where plates are pulled apart from each other. The movement of the hot mantle below the lithosphere drives the plate motion.

Plate boundaries

The North American Plate has a transform boundary with the Pacific Plate, dividing California at the San Andreas Fault. Here, the Pacific Plate moves northwest with respect to the North American Plate. Much like in our cookie model, the plates get stuck and, rather than moving smoothly and continuously, they push past each other in short bursts that we feel as earthquakes.

Near Alaska, the North American Plate meets the Pacific Plate in a convergent boundary, meaning the plates are coming together. Here, the Pacific Plate sinks under the North American Plate in a process called subduction. As the Pacific Plate subducts, some pieces of the crust scrape off onto the North American Plate. However, most of the dense sinking plate gets pulled into the mantle where it melts into the surrounding material. This helps to create volcanoes inland from the subduction zone that marks the border between the two plates.

In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the North American Plate borders the Eurasian Plate. The two plates move apart from each other at this divergent boundary. As they pull apart, the mantle material beneath rises to create new crust on the ocean floor. The continually rising mantle material created the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, an underwater chain of mountains.

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Additional Activities

North American Plate Tectonics Map

Plate tectonics is the theory that the crust of the earth is broken up into giant slabs of rocks that sort of fit together like puzzle pieces. Since there are convection currents in the mantle, the plates are pushed apart, together and past each other at different locations around the globe. In this activity we are going to focus on the North American plate.

  1. Print out or draw a map of North America, including the geographical areas of the United States, the Pacific Ocean and Canada.
  2. Draw the following plate boundaries: North American plate and Pacific plate (San Andreas fault), North American plate and Pacific plate (Pacific northwest coast of northwest United States, i.e. Juan de Fuca plate) and the North American plate and the Eurasian plate running lengthwise through the Atlantic Ocean seabed. Research the exact locations of these plate boundaries and draw them on your map.
  3. At each plate boundary draw arrows in the direction of the respective plates. For example, if the North American plate is moving NW you would draw a NW pointing arrow on the North American plate at the boundary where this motion occurs. Be sure to include the direction of the other plate movement at the same location.
  4. Categorize each type of plate boundary at the locations mentioned as either convergent, divergent or transform.
  5. At each plate boundary drawn on your map, list the geologic features that exist on these locations due to the plate interactions at these locations.
  6. Discuss the relative level of earthquake activity at the three North American plate boundaries.

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