Environment

How Many Tectonic Plates Are There?

The world is composed of major, minor, and micro tectonic plates.

Tectonic plates are gigantic segments of rock that are in constant motion relative to each other. They make up the lithosphere, which is the Earth’s crust and mantle. Tectonic Plates consist of oceanic and continental crusts. Oceanic crust is made of seas and oceans while continental crust is made of the land mass. Tectonic Plates form either divergent, transform, or convergent boundaries when they come into contact. Volcanoes, rift-valleys, mountain ranges, and earthquakes are the results of the movement of tectonic plates in relation to each other and occur at their tectonic boundaries. The movement of tectonic plates is fueled by convection taking place due to the heat in the Earth’s mantle. There are major and minor tectonic plates. There are a total of seven plates which cover nearly 95% of the world's surface.

Major Tectonic Plates By Size

Pacific Plate - 103,300,000 sq km

The Pacific Plate is estimated to be 103,300,000 square kilometers in size. Found underneath the Pacific Ocean, it is the largest of all tectonic plates. Most of the Pacific Plate is made up of oceanic crust, with the exception of areas around New Zealand and parts of California. The nature of the Pacific Plate was notably responsible for forming the islands of Hawaii. The Hawaiian Islands were originally volcanoes that rose above the water over millions of years to form land masses. These volcanoes were formed by hot spots in the Pacific Plate. The Pacific Plate is almost home to what is known as the Ring of Fire, an area on the floor of the Pacific Ocean where volcanic activity and earthquakes are most active.

North American Plate - 75,900,000 sq km

The North American Plate is the world’s second largest tectonic plate. It consists of continental crust and oceanic crust. The plate’s continental crust is made up of most of North America and Iceland. The North American plate is responsible for the formation of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a mountain chain beneath the Atlantic Ocean. A few hot spots underneath the plate are responsible for active seismic activity, the most famous example of which may be the Yellowstone geyser.

Eurasian Plate - 67,800,000 sq km

The Eurasian Plate has an estimated area of 67,800,000 square kilometers. It is the third largest of the major tectonic plates. Most of the continents of Europe and Asia are in the Eurasian Plate. A number of geological formations can be found on the Eurasian Plate, the most prominent of which is the the Himalayan ranges. The Himalayan mountains formed as a result of a collision between the Eurasian Plate and the Indian Plate. The Eurasian Plate is a geologically active plate, with volcanoes and earthquakes occuring in its territory.

African Plate - 61,300,000 sq km

The African plate is the fourth largest tectonic plate with an estimated area of 61,300,000 square kilometers. Most of the African continent is on the African Plate. The African Plate also includes substantial parts of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. The Plate is slowly splitting at the East African Rift Valley which runs from the Red Sea to Kenya. Notably, the Italian island of Sicily is also a part of the African Plate.

Antarctic Plate - 60,900,000 sq km

The Antarctic Plate encompasses the entire continent of Antarctica, as well as the nearby oceans. It is the fifth largest plate on earth. It is also the world’s southernmost plate.

Indo-Australian Plate - 58,900,000 sq km

The Indo-Australian Plate was formed out of a merger of the Australian and Indian plates millions of years ago. When the Eursian Plate and the Indo-Australian plate collided many many years ago, the Himilaya mountains were formed. Some scientists believe that the Indian Plate and the Australian Plate are actually separate plates, and have been for millions of years.

South American Plate - 43,600,000 sq km

The South American plate is a major tectonic plate that covers 43 million square kilometers around South America and the surrounding Atlantic Ocean. Plate motions between the South American Plate, which moves westward, and the nearby minor plate, the Nazca Plate, has been causing the formation of volcanoes as well as the heightening of the Andes Mountains.

Minor Tectonic Plates By Size

Somali Plate - 16,700,000 sq km

The Somali Plate is a minor tectonic plate located underneath Africa near the country of Somalia. Currently, the Somali Plate is moving away from continental Africa at a very small pace which equates to around 20 millimetres per annum. At this point, it’s possible that the area that is Somalia may break away from Africa after millions of years of movement, which would form both a new continent and a new ocean.

Nazca Plate - 15,600,000 sq km

The second largest of all minor plates, the Nazca Plate, stretches for 15.6 square km off the western coast of South America, to the south of the much smaller Cocos Plate. This location has been responsible for the number of volcanic islands and mountainous landscapes on the western coast of South America.

Philippine Sea Plate - 5,500,000 sq km

The Philippine Sea Plate comprises of over 5 million square km of ocean space adjacent to the Philippines, in the Philippine Sea. The plate also touches upon both Taiwan and Japan in its northern reaches.

Arabian Plate - 5,000,000 sq km

The Arabian Plate measures for 5 million km squared, mostly across the Arabian Peninsula. The plate also includes parts of the Levant.

Caribbean Plate - 3,300,000 sq km

The Caribbean Plate is found in the Caribbean Sea, as well as the island of Hispaniola, and Central America. It lies to the north of South America and to the south of the islands of Cuba and Jamaica.

Cocos Plate - 2,900,000 sq km

The Cocos Plate is a minor plate that stretches for 2.9 million square km. It is geographically located off of western Central America. The plate is around 23 million years old, which is young in tectonic plate terms. The formation of the Cocos Plate can be traced to seafloor spreading, which generally occurs at mid-ocean ranges. The shifting of the Cocos Plate underneath the North American Plate (these movements are called subduction) has resulted in a number of powerful earthquake eruptions in the area in recent history.

Caroline Plate - 1,700,000 sq km

The Caroline Plate is a minor plate found in south Asia. It moves at a speed of around 87 mm every year.

Scotia Plate - 1,600,000 sq km

The Scotia Plate stretches for 1.6 square km, just north of the Antarctic Plate. The majority of the plate is deeply submerged beneath the Scotia Sea.

Burma Plate - 1,100,000 sq km

As its name suggest, the Burma Plate can be found nearby the country of Burma (Myanmar).

New Hebrides Plate - 1,100,000 sq km

The New Hebrides Plate is found in the south Pacific Ocean, where it stretches for 1,100,000 squared km. It is closest to the country of Vanuatu.

Bonus: Juan de Fuca Plate - 250,000 sq km

The Juan de Fuca Plate is one of the smallest of tectonic plates - at only 205,000 km sq it is technically not a minor plate but a microplate - but it may be one of the world’s most notorious. The Juan de Fuca Plate is part of the famous Ring of Fire, a zone responsible for volcanic activity, mountainous regions, and earthquake activity.



A List of Major and Minor Plates By Size

RankTectonic Plate Type Size (Square Km)
1Pacific PlateMajor 103,300,000
2North American Plate Major 75,900,000
3Eurasian PlateMajor67,800,000
4African PlateMajor61,300,000
5Antarctic PlateMajor60,900,000
6Indo-Australian PlateMajor58,900,000
7South American PlateMajor43,600,000
8Somali PlateMinor16,700,000
9Nazca PlateMinor15,600,000
10Philippine Sea PlateMinor5,500,000
11Arabian PlateMinor5,000,000
12Caribbean Plate Minor3,300,000
13Cocos PlateMinor2,900,000
14Caroline PlateMinor1,700,000
15Scotia PlateMinor 1,600,000
16Burma PlateMinor1,100,000
17New Hebrides PlateMinor1,100,000

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