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Tectonic Plate Facts

Tectonic plates are pieces of land that connect together on the Earth’s outer shell. You can think of them like a giant round puzzle that cover Earth underneath the ground.

These pieces bump together and move, even though it is only a couple of centimeters a year. This movement causes all kinds of things to happen, such as volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis.

Where are Tectonic Plates Located?

Tectonic plates cover the entire Earth and are like a shell that sits underneath the top layer of the ground.

These plates sit on top of hot inner layers of the Earth, and they slowly move around on this melted layer.

Think of it like ice cubes moving around on top of your glass of water. Even though these tectonic plates are all over, there is a certain part of the Earth where more trouble happens than others.

How are Volcanoes Formed?

Volcanoes usually happen in a certain area of the Earth, called “The Ring of Fire”. The Ring of Fire is a circle of volcanoes that is located along the edge of California and swoops around to the edge of Asia.

This area of the Earth has over 75% of the world’s volcanoes! That’s like cutting a pizza into four big pieces, and then eating three of them.

The Ring of Fire is so full of volcanoes because of how they are formed.

Volcanoes are formed when heavier tectonic plates collide with and slide underneath lighter tectonic plates. Think of it like smashing two graham crackers together – one of them will go over the top of the other.

The lighter tectonic plate that goes on the top then begins to melt into magma as it pushes up. This magma will slowly harden and pile on top of itself, forming a volcano.


How does an Earthquake Happen?

Have you ever been in an earthquake? Depending on where you live, you may have never felt one before or you might feel them all of the time.

Earthquakes happen when tectonic plates push against each other, similar to the example of two graham crackers pushing together.

The difference with earthquakes, however, is that the tectonic plates are rubbing against each other and get stuck, then they suddenly slam into a new position. This quick movement is what causes the earth to shake.

Over 80% of the world’s most powerful earthquakes have happened along the Ring of Fire, and they have caused tons of damage and harm.

Many places that are located in the Ring of Fire have started using special buildings that can survive earthquakes, but plate tectonics are unpredictable and you never know when they will move next.

How does a Tsunami Happen?

A tsunami is a giant wave that starts in the middle of the ocean and usually makes its way to shore.

Tsunamis are also caused by the shifting of tectonic plates, and start from either an earthquake in the middle of the ocean, or a strong volcanic eruption in the ocean.

volcanic eruption

Imagine a tub of water that is gently moving back and forth, just like the ocean waves. All of a sudden, the tub gets jolted and a giant wave pushes to the edge.

This is what happens when the tectonic plates suddenly shift underneath the water. Try this the next time you are in the bath!

The Ring of Fire, with all of its earthquakes and volcanoes because of the tectonic plates, is a popular place for tsunamis.

Around 80% of the world’s tsunamis happen in the Ring of Fire, and they can cause horrible effects to the countries they hit.

These gigantic waves flood the shores and far inland, and often destroy everything in their path.


Quick Facts: Tectonic Plates

There are eight main tectonic plates and lots of smaller ones.

Tectonic plates are responsible for volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis.

tsunami wave

The Ring of Fire is a location on Earth where the big tectonic plates meet and push against each other.

When a heavy tectonic plate pushes under a light tectonic plate, the lighter one rises up and becomes a volcano.

When two tectonic plates run by each other and then suddenly snap, this causes an earthquake.

When two plates cause an earthquake or volcanic eruption in the ocean, this causes a tsunami.


Tectonic plates are found throughout the Earth and play a huge part in some of the natural disasters that happen. They are always moving and are very unpredictable.

These powerful pieces of land are responsible for earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis, and are not going to stop moving and shifting anytime soon!

tsunami warnings

By learning about tectonic plates, we can be better prepared the next time they snap or shake.

Earth Science

layers of the earth cartoon