Plate tectonics is a relatively young scientific theory, only gaining traction among geologists in the late 60s and early 70s. One key tenet of the theory is subduction where plates meet and one is forced down into the mantle, like in this illustration of the subduction zone near Japan. In early incarnations of the theory what happens to that subducting slab of rock once it’s in the mantle were ignored. But over the decades, geologists have built maps of the interior of our planet through the seismic waves they record. What they’ve found is that the continental chunks that break off and sink can have long-lasting effects.
Beneath the Earth’s crust, the mantle behaves like an extremely slow-moving fluid under incredibly high temperatures and pressures. It can take tens of millions of years, but those broken slabs sink through the mantle, dragging fluid with them. This creates a large-scale flow known as a mantle wind, which can have far-reaching effects at the Earth’s surface. Through modeling and simulation, geologists have found these deep mantle flows may explain why mountain ranges like the Himalayas and Andes didn’t grow until millions of years after their plates collided and why earthquakes sometimes occur far from plate boundaries. For more, check out this great article from Ars Technica. (Image credit: British Geological Survey; via Ars Technica; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)