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Key People:J. Tuzo WilsonDrummond Hoyle MatthewsWalter Alvarez...(Show more)Related Topics:Earthquakecontinental driftContinentVolcanismDiastrophism...

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German meteorologist Alfred Wegener is often credited as the first to develop a theory of plate tectonics, in the form of continental drift. Bringing together a large mass of geologic and paleontological data, Wegener postulated that throughout most of geologic time there was only one continent, which he called Pangea, and the breakup of this continent heralded Earth’s current continental configuration as the continent-sized parts began to move away from one another. (Scientists discovered later that Pangea fragmented early in the Jurassic Period.) Wegener presented the idea of continental drift and some of the supporting evidence in a lecture in 1912, followed by his major published work,The Origin of Continents and Oceans(1915).

Although this has yet to be proven with certainty, most geologists and geophysicists agree that plate movement is caused by the convection (that is, heat transfer resulting from the movement of a heated fluid) of magma in Earth’s interior. The heat source is thought to be the decay of radioactive elements. How this convection propels the plates is poorly understood. Some geologists argue that upwelling magma at spreading centres pushes the plates, whereas others argue that the weight of a portion of a subducting plate (one that is forced beneath another) may pull the rest of the plate along.

The Ring of Fire is a long horseshoe-shaped earthquake-prone belt of volcanoes and tectonic plate boundaries that fringes the Pacific Ocean basin. For much of its 40,000-km (24,900-mile) length, the belt follows chains of island arcs such as Tonga and Vanuatu, the Indonesian archipelago, the Philippines, Japan, the Kuril Islands, and the Aleutians, as well as other arc-shaped features, such as the western coast of North America and the Andes Mountains.