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1 The Earth in Context
2 The Way the Earth Works: Plate Tectonics
3 Patterns in Nature: Minerals
4 Up From the Inferno: Magma and Igneous Rocks
5 A Surface Veneer: Sediments and Sedimentary Rocks
6 Change in the Solid State: Metamorphic Rocks
7 The Wrath of Vulcan: Volcanic Eruptions
8 A Violent Pulse: Earthquakes
9 Crags, Cracks, and Crumples: Crustal Deformation and Mountain Building
10 Deep Time: How Old is Old?
11 A Biography of Earth
12 Riches in Rock: Energy and Mineral Resources
13 Unsafe Ground: Landslides and Other Mass Movements
14 Streams and Floods: The Geology of Running Water
15 Restless Realm: Oceans and Coasts
16 A Hidden Reserve: Groundwater
17 Dry Regions: The Geology of Deserts
18 Amazing Ice: Glaciers and Ice Ages
19 Global Change in the Earth System

Does Plate Tectonics Occur on Other Planets?

by Stephen Marshak
Overview Image

Model of our Solar System


Our solar system contains four terrestrial planets and numerous terrestrial-like moons. Do any of these planets or moons display the consequences of plate tectonics? Planetary geologists, who have studied images of these planets taken through telescopes or from exploratory satellites, say no. The Earth appears to be the only body in the solar system to experience plate tectonics. Why? Because Earth's interior has remained warm enough for flow to take place in its mantle. For this reason, asthenosphere can rise at mid-ocean ridges, and can move out of the way of subducting plates. The mantles of Mercury, Mars, the Moon, and Venus apparently cannot flow like that of Earth, so these planets have no active volcanoes, no continental drift, and no sea-floor spreading. Earlier in solar-system history, however, when they were warmer, Mars and Venus did have volcanoes, perhaps comparable to hot-spot volcanoes on Earth. Indeed, the pattern of faults on Venus suggests that plate-tectonics-like movement struggled to begin but never quite succeeded.

The Jovian planets consist mostly of gas, so they cannot possibly have a rigid lithosphere. Curiously, though, some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn appear to exhibit tectonic features. In fact, the Galileo satellite in 1996 photographed a volcano in the act of erupting on Io, a moon of Jupiter. But these volcanoes reflect some other type of melting process, not plate tectonics.

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