Course Information


Course Description:

The course will be a presentation of plate tectonics and the physical processes currently shaping the Earth, using the "Ring of Fire," a narrow band of recurring earthquakes and volcanoes that rings the Pacific Ocean, as a focus. It will describe the current state of knowledge about the geology of our planet, showing how the concept of plate tectonics explains the existence of many diverse things, from earthquakes and volcanoes to the formation of mountains and oceans to the diversity of life and past extinctions of animals.

We will begin with the current theories first of the creation and age of the universe and then the formation of our solar system and earth. We will use evidence from the fossil record and the geological structure of the continents to discern the manner in which the planet has cooled down since its molten accretion 4.55 billion years ago.

The current state of the earth will then be closely examined from many different perspectives. We will see how mountains are constantly being pushed up, only to be torn down by the erosional forces of wind, rain, rivers and glaciers; the earth's magnetic field reverses direction at irregular time intervals; earthquakes and volcanoes occur only in very particular areas, and usually in long, narrow zones; and the patterns of seismic waves from large earthquakes and the different values of the force of gravity at the Earth's surface, as measured by satellites, give us information about the structure of the inside of our planet. Other clues such as the formation of diamonds and the patterns of Pacific Islands will also give us information as to the larger picture of the earth's activities.

Once all pieces of the puzzle have been examined, we will put them together in the framework of plate tectonics. We will see how the earth's surface is broken into plates which move relative to each other. Some move apart, such as the North American and European plates, causing huge rifts where molten lava rises to fill the cracks. Others collide like the Pacific and Asian plates, causing one plate to subduct under the other. This results in large numbers of earthquakes and volcanoes, as in Japan, or the creation of mountains, as in the case of the ever growing Himalayas, which result from the collision of the Indian and Asian plates. Other plates slide past each other and cause large earthquakes along long faults, as in the case of the San Andreas Fault between the Pacific and North American plates.

The course will explore the historical record of plate tectonics, such as the formation of the great ancient land mass called Pangaea and the huge extinction of many life forms which may have resulted from its break-up. Evidence of these motions comes from many sources, ranging from the shapes of the continents to the geology of the rocks in the continents and ocean floors (for example, Most of Nova Scotia (and part of Rhode Island!) used to be African rock which broke off when the Atlantic Ocean began forming). Finally, the mechanism by which plate tectonics works, answering the question, "what drives the plates?" will be discussed, using the Pacific plate (with its active boundaries stretching from the Andes Mountains in Chile to the volcanoes of Alaska and Japan to the earthquakes under Tonga and Fiji) as a case study.


Geology, 4th Edition, by Chernicoff and Whitney (required).


There will be
  1. two short (5-page) papers,
  2. one short in-class presentation,
  3. some on-line assignments, and
  4. a final exam.
A list of questions (from which the final exam questions will be chosen) will be handed out at the end of class (and posted on the web site). Passing for Pass/Fail options is a C- or better.

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