Plate Tectonics Syllabus

General Information

Class Times


Lecture meets in Webb 1025, T R12:30 -1:50 (with a 5 min break mid way).
Lab meets in Webb 1030, T R 2:00 - 3:20. No lab April 28.

Office Hours


Atwater: x4483, Webb 1117, M W 2:30-3:45 or by appointment (
White: x2853, Webb 2029, T R 11:30-12:15 or by appointment (
Gans: office hours to be arranged (


Lab-Homework Problems


All Geo 157 students must attend both lab periods (1 1/2 hours each) each week. Lab-homework problem sets will be handed out in class. Due dates are listed on the tops of the sets. Problems are due at the beginning of labon the date listed (10 minutes late = 1 day late so, don't even think about finishing last week's lab during this week's lab time!).

Lecture and Lab Materials


Lecture notes and lab-homework problem sets will be handed out in class. The BARC account of every student who is officially registered in the class on May 1 (i.e., after the Drop Deadline) will be charged a $10 xerox fee for these materials. In addition, each student should acquire and bring the following materials to the labs: pencils and eraser, erasable colored pencils, straight edge, protractor, compass, tracing paper (about 20 sheets).
   Note the following pagination convention: class logistics p.1-...; general supplementary information p.100-...; lecture notes p.150-...; lab/homework problems p.300-... .



Articles from the professional literature in preparation for your poster and term paper.
   (Optional) Plate Tectonics, How It Works, A. Cox and B. Hart, Blackwell Scientific Pub., 1986. (A set of problems with detailed explanations and related text - a good description of the geometry of plates.)
   (Highly recom.) Global Tectonics by Philip Kearey and Fred Vine, Blackwell Scientific Pub., 1990. (Good description of much of the classic data and concepts to be presented in lecture. )
   (Optional) Tectonics by Eldridge Moores, Freeman & Co., pub., 1995. (Good description of lecture material plus details of many continental orogenic zones. )

Student Poster Presentations


Working as a group of 2-3 students, create and present a poster exploring the plate tectonic history of your area. Oral presentations (about 10 minutes, total, for each poster, all students speaking) in lab Thurs, May 7 (Atlantic and Indian) and Tues, May 12 (Pacific).

Term Paper


Plate tectonic topic or controversy of your choice, 1800 -2000 words long (about 6-7 double spaced pages of text in Times 12 pt print with 1 inch margins). Follow instructions carefully. Semi-final draft with figures due Tues May 19 (late penalty after 9 AM Wed May 20. In-lab peer review Thur May 21 (Students wishing to participate in Geo 18 trip may make other arrangements.). Final draft due Thurs, May 28.

Geo 157X


Geo 157 students may earn 1 unit for participation in the graduate seminar.

Schedule Highlights


Thur, May 7 Poster presentations in lab for Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

Tues, May 12, Poster presentations in lab for Pacific Ocean.

Thur, April 28, First Exam, no lab.

Tues, May 19, Semi-final draft of Term Paper, with figures, due.

(Very important deadline!Serious late penalties after 9 AM Wed, May 20.)

Thur, May 21, peer review of term papers in lab (alternatives available for Geo 18 participants.)

Thur, May 28, Revised Term Paper due.

Second Exam: Sat, June 6, 12-3, or Mon, June 8, 4-7, to be determined by class vote.

Geo 157/235 Lecture Topics(not necessarily in this order)


Introduction and overview, continental drift history

Marine magnetic anomalies, magnetic polarity time scales, and rates of plate motions

Mid-ocean ridges, oceanic crust and ophiolites

Transform faults, fracture zones, and directions of plate motions

Earthquake focal mechanisms and directions of plate motions

Subduction zone geology: tectonic phenomena in the overriding plates

Subduction zone slabs: geometry, seismicity, implications for mantle convection patterns

Hot spots and "absolute" plate motions

Oceanic lithosphere, oceanic topography and heat flow, seismic and flexural thickness

Continental lithosphere, seismic and flexural thickness

Describing relative plate velocities on a sphere, NUVEL models for present plate motions

Describing plate displacements on a sphere

Driving mechanisms for the plate motions

Plate history of the Pacific Ocean basin and exotic terranes
Active margin tectonics as illustrated by the Phanerozoic evolution of western United States (Exotic terranes, Sierra Nevadan arc, Franciscan accretionary wedge, Laramide orogeny, Basin and Range extension, San Andreas fault system)

Plate history of the Arctic and Atlantic Ocean basins and passive continental margins

Plate history of the Indian Ocean and paleo-oceanography

Paleomagnetic polar wander curves, drift histories, and "absolute" plate motions

Continental collisions and fold-thrust mountain belts of Asia

Geology 157 Laboratory/homework activities


(**required for Geology 235, *optional for Geology 235)

* World geography, neo-tectonics, and geology

March 31 & April 2

* Deep Sea Drilling Project/Ocean Drilling Project

April 7

** Finding references using Georef

April 7(also)

** Interpretation of magnetic anomalies

April 9 & 14

* Earthquake first motion solutions

April 16

** Plate geometries on a flat earth

April 21 & 23

First Exam, No lab

April 28

** Describing velocities of plates on a sphere: Euler vectors

April 30 & May 5

* Student Poster Presentations

May 7 & 12

** Describing displacements of plates on a flat earth

May 14 & 19

Student paper peer review session and Geo 18 trip

May 21

* Describing displacements of plates on a sphere: Euler rotations

May 26 & 28

** Paleomagnetic polar wander curves

June 2 &4



During this class you will do a number of exercises that use real data collected in some particular area of the world. You may choose any of the areas listed below and shown on the map. You will be asked to choose an area in lab on Thur, April 2. Several activities will be done in a group of 2-3 students, so you may wish to form a group ahead and agree on an area. If you wish to change your area or reorganize groups later, please speak to Prof. Atwater.

You will conduct the following activities in your area.

Georef:searching the computer data base for professional literature about your area.

Deep Sea Drilling lab:reading and reporting about holes drilled in your area.

Magnetic Anomaly lab:examining magnetic profiles collected by ships in your area and judging the validity of the isochrons deduced from them.

Poster presentation:with 1 or 2 other students, reading and compiling information about the plate tectonic history of your area and giving an oral presentation about this history, the data that supports that history, and any major controversies/uncertainties.

Euler Poles labs:finding and making sense of the poles that describe the relative motions and displacements of the plates in your area.

Term Paper:It is possible that the topic for your paper will suggest itself to you during your reading for your poster.

Areas Available for Study

Arctic Ocean

Red Sea and Gulf of Aden

East equatorial Pacific Ocean

Far North Atlantic Ocean

North-western Indian Ocean

Northeast equatorial Pacific Ocean

Central North Atlantic Ocean

North-eastern (old) Indian Ocean

Northeast Pacific Ocean

Caribbean Sea - Gulf of Mexico

South-eastern Indian Ocean

Western (old) Pacific Ocean

South Atlantic Ocean

Southwest Pacific Ocean

Philippine Sea

Drake Passage and Scotia Sea

Southeast Pacific Ocean

South-western Indian Ocean

Southeast-equatorial Pacific Ocean

Poster Presentations Of The Plate Tectonic History Of Your Area


Working in a group of 2-3 students, create and present a poster illustrating and exploring the sea floor spreading and plate tectonic history of your area.

Poster Layout.The bulk of the poster should be a clear display of maps and figures ,with explanatory captions, for use during your oral presentation. The poster should also include: a title, your names, a short abstract summarizing your matrial, and a reference list of sources used. Be sure to credit the source of each figure in itscaption. If you would like to try producing your poster via computer, speak to Scott.

Handout page.Have ready about 10 copies of a one page handout to give to your reviewers when they visit your poster and hear your presentation. The top half of the handout page should include the title of your poster, your names, and your abstract. Leave the bottom half blank for the reviewers to write their comments.

Science Content.Your material must include both data and interpretations. Include uncertainties, any unresolved problems, and any controversies. Include information from at least three different sources in the professional literature. To find good articles, check outthe references listed in "Georef", in the Deep Sea Drilling volumes, and in the area references list. Be sure to include some sources published in the last few years.

Oral Presentation.The oral presentation of your poster should take 7-10 minutes, total, with every student participant speaking about some aspect. If your group is struggling, trying to figure out the flow of your presentation, ask for help.

Dates.In general, posters for the Atlantic and Indian Oceans will be presented in lab on Thur, May 7, and posters for Pacific Ocean will be presented in lab on Thur, May 12. Individual groups that wish to change days should speak to Atwater in advance.

Peer Reviews.All students are required to attend both poster sessions. On the day that you are not presenting, you will be a reviewer. You must visit each of at least four of the posters, collect the handout page, hear the presentation, write some comments (both positive and negative, but helpful to the presenters, please) on the bottom half of the page and turn it in.



Each 157 student is required to write a term paper for this class. You cannot pass the class without writing an acceptable term paper.

Paper Topic


Choose a plate tectonic topic or controversy that particularly interests you. ( If you have any difficulty coming up with a topic speak to Atwater or Scott or #.) Use Georef to find some articles in the professional literature about your topic and browse through them, then pick an aspect to write about (small enough so that you can get deeply into it). You may write about some aspect related to your poster presentation or you may choose something else.

Due Dates


Your paper will be peer reviewed in lab on Thursday, May 21. Therefore... Semi-final draft, spell-checked, with figures and captions, due Tuesday, May 19. Very important deadline! Serious late penalties will be imposed upon any paper turned in after 9 AM Wed, May 20. Revised version due Thursday, May 28.



Start your paper with your title and an abstract of a few sentences on a separate page. The abstract should be the last thing you write. See next page for more about abstracts.

Begin the text with a short introduction: how is your subject important or interesting in the larger context?

In the main body of the text and in the figures present both data and theory. (Data alone is boring; theories/ideas alone are fairy tales.)

Describe the work of the authors you read and also give your own opinion. Do you think the available data substantiate the authors' conclusions? If various authors are arguing with one another, who do you think is more likely to be right or what additional data needs to be collected to test the hypotheses or to decide among them?

End the text with some conclusions.

Be sure to include some figures and write your own figure captions. In most cases, Figure 1 should be a general map that locates your area/subject and includes the names of all geographic features mentioned in the text.



Your paper should be about 1800 -2000 words long. This is equivalent to about 6-7 double spaced pages of text in Times 12 pt print with 1 inch margins. Do not exceed 8 double spaced pages of text; abstract, figures, tables, and bibliography will be additional pages.

G. E. Credit and Grading


This class earns you credit for the G.E. writing requirement. Your term paper grade constitutes one-fifth of your total grade. The paper grade will be based one-half on content and one-half on presentation and English so it behooves you to pay close attention to the following instructions..

Presentation And English


Begin with an abstract summarizing what your paper says. Write this after you have finished writing your paper. Restate, completely but succinctly, what you said; i.e., give the "punch line" of each section. Avoid phrases such as "will be discussed" or "are described." The abstract is probably the most important paragraph in your paper and it is the hardest to write well. Give it the time and care it deserves.

2. Make an Outline and include Section Subtitles. Your text shoud have subtitles (e.g., Introduction. Eocene History of Volcanism. Supporting Evidence. etc) to guide the reader through your material. If you have trouble organizing your material, an outline usually helps.

3. Cite the source for every idea or fact that you present. Inclusion of others' works with citations is called "good science"; without citations, it is called "plagiarism", a serious offense. Unless you made the measurement or dreamed up the concept yourself, you must be clear who did the work and where we can read about it.

When making extensive use of one article, a blanket citation suffices, e.g., "The early history of the Labrador Sea is described by Talwani, et al. (1982), as follows...."

For the purposes of this paper, you may refer to some works as follows: "Pitman and Heirtzler, 1978, as cited in Talwani, et al., 1989." (As a professional, you will need to personally read everything you cite.)

To give credit for (as yet) unpublished information, use a form like... "Scott White, personal communication, 1998."

Use a citation style such as that used in the professional science journals (not an English Lit footnote style.) Examples from articles in the Journal of Geophysical Research and the Bulletin of the Geological Society of America are attached. List all references alphabetically at the end.

4. Include some maps and figures. It is usually advisable to have a general location map as Figure 1, showing the overall geography and including any place names you will use in the text. You may xerox appropriate figures from the literature but you must write your own figure captions, making clear how each figure relates to the discussion in your text. When you use figures from the literature, cite the source of each figure in each caption. If you copy a figure exactly, use "from". Example: "..., from Molnar and Stock (1980)." If you copy but alter a figure, use "after". Example: "..., after Smith and others (1988)."

5. Papers must be typed. Use a word processor. If you don't know how, this is an excellent time to learn. A number of Macs are available for student use in the Geology Department Mac Lab. (Ask Lori Okamura in the department office for a door-access code.) When you print out your text, please don't right-justify - it looks tidy but it makes it harder to read and correct.

6. Proof-read your work for spelling and typographical errors. Run your rough draft of the text through the word processor's spelling checker and then read it through for goofs. I am completely impatient with bad spelling and typos!

7. Use good grammar. Use good sentence and paragraph structure. If this aspect is not your forte, get a friend or one of the T.A.s to read your draft and help you.


[People] [Research] [Resources] [Alumni] 
[Life] [Graduate] [Undergrad] [Outreach]