Interactive Plate Tectonics

Explore the dynamics of plate tectonics with this engaging interactive map and give your students the opportunity to work with data and mapping. This digital map created by Earth Science Geoinquiries provides a great resource that visualizes plate boundaries around the world and the geological impact of those boundaries.

Grades: 4-8, 9-12


The theory of plate tectonics began with the concept of continental drift, which was proposed by Alfred Wegener in 1912. This concept was foundational to the theory of plate tectonics and laid the groundwork that would later become the unifying theory of geology. Continental drift is known as the slow and gradual movement of the continents across the surface of the earth. While scientists like Wegener understood that the continents drifet apart over time, they did not have an understanding of the forces that led to this movement at this time.

Plate tectonics provides an explanation for movements in the earth’s crust such as earthquakes and the formation of mountains and trenches. The basic idea of plate tectonics is that the outer shell of the earth’s layer is composed of several plates that move over the mantly layer. These plates shift and move in ways that greatly impact the composition of the earth’s surface. The movement, collision, and drifting of the earth’s crust results in the creation of landforms in the past and present.

For more information on plate tectonics, check out this great post by LiveScience

What You’ll Need

In order to complete this simulation with your students, you will need access to computers. You will not need to download anything for this activity, and will only need this link to the map: Earth Science Geoinquiries

Esri Geoinquiries also created a great lesson guide that you can use to get the full experience with your students at this link: Esri Lesson Guide

What to Do

Esri Geoinquiries created a great lesson guide for this activity, so here I will provide a quick overview to the online map and how it works.

When you click the link, you will see a world map with several lines in different colors. If you take a look to the menu on the left, you will see a map legend that identifies these lines and what they represent. Their legend provides four different plate boundaries:

  1. Convergent
  2. Divergent
  3. Transform
  4. Unknown

Click the tab labeled “content” to get to the real heart of the activity. This menu provides you with different options you can click on that will appear on the map. The option for plate boundaries is automatically selected.

Most of these options show earthquakes in different regions around the world. You can also click on an option that shows absolute plate motions with arrows that point in different directions.

At the top of the page there is a menu item labeled “measure” that allows you to use different units to measure distances on the map. This can be helpful to understand the scale and size of these plates.

Connecting Concepts (NGSS)

Analyze and interpret data from maps to describe patterns of Earth’s features.
Construct an explanation based on evidence for how geoscience processes have changed Earth’s surface at varying time and spatial scales.
Evaluate evidence of the past and current movements of continental and oceanic crust and the theory of plate tectonics to explain the ages of crustal rocks.

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