Chapter 1: Section 5 - Plate Boundary Environments

PDF versionPDF version


In this section you will find materials that support the implementation of EarthComm, Section 5: Plate Boundary Environments.

Learning Outcomes

  • Use a model to explain the formation of continental and ocean-floor features that result from the movement of Earth’s lithospheric plates.
  • Analyze data on a world map that shows the locations of hot spots to determine patterns in hot spot formation.

Using Technology

To learn more about plate boundary environments, complete the following:

Modeling Plate Boundary Environments 

  1. You are now going to use Google Earth to examine the distribution of Earth’s plate boundary environments.  In Section 1, you saved the file “eqs7day-age.” to your computer.  The file contains earthquake location and plate boundary data provided by the United States Geological Survey.  Click on the file and it will open up with Google Earth.

    google earth
  2. In the Google Earth sidebar, switch off (uncheck) the option for displaying “Earthquake Epicenters” and “Plate Boundaries.” 
  3. Activate (check) the “Continental convergent boundary” data.  Using the Google Earth navigation controls, rotate the Earth to view all of the locations for this type of plate boundary.  Switch off (uncheck) the data. 
  4. Examine the locations for each type of boundary listed in the sidebar in the same manner as you did in step 3.
  5. pencil Identify on a world map of lithospheric plates one example of each of the plate boundaries listed in the sidebar.
  6. With your group, select one of the following plate boundary environments:
    • Continental convergent boundary
    • Continental rift boundary
    • Continental transform fault
    • Oceanic convergent boundary
    • Oceanic spreading rift
    • Oceanic transform fault
  7. Develop a model that represents your plate boundary environment. Use the information in the Digging Deeper of Section 5 to help you build your model. Make sure your model demonstrates the movements of lithospheric plates and the surface features they cause.
  8. Share your model with your class.

Inquiring Further

  1. To learn more about life at hydrothermal vents and mid-ocean ridges, visit the following web sites:

Black Smokers, American Museum of Natural History
Learn about black smokers and where they form.  Includes images and information about life forms at hydrothermal deep sea vents.

The Deep Ocean Floor, American Museum of Natural History
Learn how much of the ocean floor has been mapped and how new data is being collected.

Exploring the deep ocean floor: Hot springs and strange creatures, USGS
Looks at geothermal vent ecosystems.  Contains several photos of the strange creatures which inhabit the far reaches of the ocean floor.

Dive and Discover, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Includes information about the unique geology, chemistry and biology of hydrothermal vents.

Earth - Ocean Interactions Program, NOAA and Pacific Marine Environmental Lab
In-depth descriptions of hydrothermal vents and their unique ecosystems where chemical energy nurtures life instead of sunlight.


To learn more about this topic, visit the following web sites:

Oceanic Trenches

Basic Geology of the Mariana Islands, Volcano World
The subduction of the Philippine plate below the Pacific plate has formed the Mariana trench, the deepest oceanic trench in the world. Read about the geology of this area. Also find links to the volcanoes which form at this subduction zone.

Volcanoes at Plate Boundaries

Mount St. Helens Volcano, Washington, USGS
Volcanoes formed at subduction zones (convergent plate boundaries) are called composite cone volcanoes.  Learn more about composite cones at this site.

Mount Pinatubo, Philippines, USGS
Composite cone volcanoes formed above subduction zones often erupt violently.  Learn more about composite cones at this site.

Cascade Range Volcanoes and Volcanics, USGS
The Cascade Range in the Western United States is an example of active subduction volcanism. Follow Cascade Range volcanic activity through a weekly update. This site also provides an in-depth review of the geologic history of the Cascade volcanoes.

Hot Spots

Hot Spots and Mantle Plumes, Volcano World
View a slide show with color photos and descriptions about the theory of "hot spots." Site also includes a list of sample lesson plans, key concepts, references, and activities about hot spots and the Hawaiian islands.

"Hot spots:" Mantle Thermal Plumes, USGS
Learn more about the geology of the Hawaiian islands as well as other hot spots around the world.

Rifting in the Red Sea, East Africa, USGS
A basic map showing the historically active volcanoes in the Afar Triangle. This is a triple junction (or triple point), where three plates are pulling away from one another: the Arabian Plate, and the two parts of the African Plate (the Nubian and the Somalian) splitting along the East African Rift Zone.

Hawaiian Volcanoes, USGS Hawaii Volcano Observatory
Read about the active Hawaiian Volcanoes and how they continue to form above a hot spot. It also includes links to other pages about specific volcanoes on the islands of Hawaii and Maui.

Mountains at Plate Boundaries

Volcanoes in Africa, Smithsonian Institute
Africa is one of the top five volcanic regions in world in terms of numbers of people living within distances of 5-100 km of a volcano. Learn more about the volcanic fields, rifts and and calderas in this dynamic region.

Collision and the Uplift of the Himalayas, USGS
About 225 million years ago India was a large island off the coast of Australia. From 40 million years ago it began to collide with Asia to form the greatest mountain range on Earth. Find out more about the formation of the Himalaya Mountains.

Earthquakes and Plate Tectonics

Earthquake Topics - Plate Tectonics, USGS
Explains the distribution of earthquakes around the globe. Includes a review of plate tectonic theory and the four types of seismic zones. Also includes examples of each type of seismic zone.

Plate Tectonics and Real Time Earthquakes, IRIS
View current and past earthquakes around the globe. Use the zoom tool to see a particular region in detail.