Understanding Tectonic Plates with Primary Sources

This post is written by Amara Alexander, the 2019-20 Library of Congress Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow.

Like an apple, the earth is described as having three layers–in the earth’s case, the crust, mantle, and core. The tectonic plates, also called the lithosphere, are a combination of the crust and the outer mantle, and they can shift and move around the earth’s surface. Tectonic plates bump against each other along boundaries and each boundary develops varying results. Convergent plates create mountain ranges while divergent plates cause volcanic eruptions and transform plates generate earthquakes.

Present this map that documents the seismic activity of the earth between 1960-1980 and ask students to observe, describe, and share what they see. If necessary, prompt them with questions such as:

  • Does anything on the map appear strange or unfamiliar?
  • Why was this map made?
  • Who do you think was the audience for this map?

Ask them to look closely to identify a pattern to the activity highlighted in this image.

Seismicity of the earth, 1960-1980. A.F. Espinosa, 1982

Ask students to identify the areas of earthquake activity, volcanic eruptions, and mountain ranges. Allow them time to discuss and justify with a partner and the class their reasoning and evidence for designating those areas. Point out the area known as the Ring of Fire located around the Pacific Ocean. The Ring of Fire is the direct result of the movement and collisions of the tectonic plates. Support students’ research into notable events resulting from these natural occurrences. Remind them that mountain ranges, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes happen due to the moving and shifting of the tectonic plates.

Effect of the earthquake on dwelling houses, San Francisco, California. Detroit Publishing Company, 1906

The Library’s digital collections highlight the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. On April 18th, a massive earthquake and the aftermath that followed devastated San Francisco. The earthquake was felt throughout the San Francisco Bay area from southern Oregon all the way south of Los Angeles and inward to central Nevada. A product of the San Andreas fault, the earthquake rattled the city and sparked fires for days after the initial earthquake. Students can view a film and an image to gain a deeper understanding of the impact of the earthquake and the damage left behind.

Allow students ‘think-time’ to analyze the image. Describe what you notice. Do you see any comparisons to the video?  The 1906 earthquake was a catalyst for scientists to begin the formal study of earthquakes and their effects. If time allows, students might research to discover what policies were implemented because of the 1906 earthquake to ensure the safety of structures.

This lesson can breathe life into a variety of topics ranging from disaster preparedness and recovery to building structures to withstand the earth’s movements during an earthquake.

How can you use these resources to teach about tectonic plates?

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