What features form at plate tectonic boundaries?

Deep ocean trenches, volcanoes, island arcs, submarine mountain ranges, and fault lines are examples of features that can form along plate tectonic boundaries.

Volcanoes are one kind of feature that forms along convergent plate boundaries, where two tectonic plates collide and one moves beneath the other. This photo shows an explosion near the summit of the West Mata volcano within the Pacific Ocean; the image area is about 1.8 meters (6 feet) across in an eruptive zone about the length of a football field that runs along the summit.

Volcanoes are one kind of feature that forms along convergent plate boundaries, where two tectonic plates collide and one moves beneath the other. This photo shows an explosion near the summit of the West Mata volcano within the Pacific Ocean; the image area is about 1.8 meters (6 feet) across in an eruptive zone about the length of a football field that runs along the summit. Image courtesy of NSF and NOAA. Download larger version (jpg, 1.4 MB).

The Earth’s outer crust (the lithosphere) is composed of a series of tectonic plates that move on a hot flowing mantle layer called the asthenosphere. Heat within the asthenosphere creates convection currents that cause tectonic plates to move several centimeters per year relative to each other. When two tectonic plates meet, we get a “plate boundary.” There are three major types of plate boundaries, each associated with the formation of a variety of geologic features.

If two tectonic plates collide, they form a convergent plate boundary. Usually, one of the converging plates will move beneath the other, a process known as subduction. Deep trenches are features often formed where tectonic plates are being subducted and earthquakes are common. As the sinking plate moves deeper into the mantle, fluids are released from the rock causing the overlying mantle to partially melt. The new magma (molten rock) rises and may erupt violently to form volcanoes, often building arcs of islands along the convergent boundary.

When two plates are moving away from each other, we call this a divergent plate boundary. Along these boundaries, magma rises from deep within the Earth and erupts to form new crust on the lithosphere. Most divergent plate boundaries are underwater and form submarine mountain ranges called oceanic spreading ridges. While the process of forming these mountain ranges is volcanic, volcanoes and earthquakes along oceanic spreading ridges are not as violent as they are at convergent plate boundaries.

The third type of plate boundary occurs where tectonic plates slide horizontally past each other. This is known as a transform plate boundary. As the plates rub against each other, huge stresses can cause portions of the rock to break, resulting in earthquakes. Places where these breaks occur are called faults. A well-known example of a transform plate boundary is the San Andreas Fault in California.