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What is Continental Collision?

Instructor: Josh Corbat

Josh has taught Earth Science and Physical Science at the High School level and holds a Master of Education degree from UNC-Chapel Hill.

Much like the collision of a car, when continents collide the results are quite dramatic. In this lesson, we'll discuss continental collision and what may result.

How Can Continents Collide?

Think about what happens when two cars have a head-on collision. I sincerely hope you only know this because you've seen it on TV, or in a movie, and not because you've been part one. At any rate, the damage to both cars can be major. In many cases, the front ends of the cars will be destroyed. In my mind, I picture the hoods of both cars crumpled up, accordion-style. This is an image that will help us as we learn about continental collision.

A car that has been involved in a head-on collision. Notice the upward crumpled hood on the car. This is a good analogy for what happens during continental collision.
Wrecked car

The crust of our Earth is not made up of a single, solid piece of rock. Instead, it is divided into several huge pieces, called tectonic plates. These plates shift around on the moving mantle of the Earth. As plates shift, they interact with each other in several ways. Some plates move away from each other, and allow new crust to form as mantle material (melted rock) comes out of the gap. Some plates run into each other. This can have different results based on which type of plates they are. As oceanic plates (plates under the ocean) run into continental, or other oceanic plates, they typically travel downward into the mantle. When continental plates collide with other continental plates, however, something else happens entirely.

Continental collision occurs as two continental tectonic plates run into each other. One of the colliding continental plates will typically dive beneath the other. Unlike a collision involving an oceanic plate, though, the other continental plate tends to break and is forced upward. This upward force occurs during a continental collision because these plates tend to be low in density. Anything low in density will have a tendency to lift upward during a collision.

Mountains forming due to the collision of continental plates. The uplift occurs because of the low density of the upper plate.
Continental collision

What Happens When Continents Collide?

Collisions between continents are the cause of some of the world's tallest mountain chains. The Himalayan Mountains are an excellent example of a mountain chain caused by continental collision. Just like in our original car crash example, as two continents collide, one (or sometimes both) continental plate will crumple and lift upwards. The type of mountains formed at the site of continental collisions are sometimes called folded mountains.

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