Does The Moon Have Tectonic Plates?

Our Moon has always been a mystery. There are many theories on how it formed, but we still don’t know for sure.

We finally got our chance to learn more about the Moon in 1969 when man finally reached its surface. These astronauts were able to conduct experiments on the surface and collect samples to bring back to Earth.

It turns out the Moon is not made of cheese as some have thought over the years. But what is going on both on and below its surface?

Before we look more closely at whether the Moon does have tectonic plates or not, let’s first understand a bit more about the surface of the Earth and how it has helped us learn more about tectonic plates.

Moon's outer surface
Mountains of the moon. (Image credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

What Are Tectonic Plates?

The planet Earth may appear smooth and seamless, but things are not always what they seem. The crust, or surface, of our Earth is divided into fifteen massive plates that have been slowly moving across the planet since its creation.

These plates are usually named for the landmass or body of water that sits on top of them. They vary significantly in size, with the largest covering an area of over 100 million square kilometers (almost 39 million square miles). These tectonic plates have an average thickness of 125 kilometers, or nearly 80 miles.

The term tectonic actually comes from a Latin and Greek word that refers to processes that affect the Earth’s crust on a large scale. These immense plates can have a tremendous effect on the Earth!

Earth's Tectonic Plates
Earth’s tectonic plates. (Image credit: Fathimahazara on Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

What Causes Tectonic Plates To Move?

Believe it or not, everything that sits below the Earth’s crust layer is not solid rock. The mantle, the layer right below the crust, is molten and allows tectonic plates to glide over its liquid surface.

While the Earth’s plates fit together like a puzzle, heat from the Earth’s core causes the mantle to move and take these surface plates with it. Think about how an object sitting on the surface of the water will slowly move if you move your hand through the water underneath it.

Tectonic plates are known for earthquakes, the formation of mountain ranges, and even volcanic activity. We’re talking about some serious firepower here! The good news is that these plates only move at an average of 10 meters (33 feet) every 100 years!

Tectonic Movement
Tectonic plates movement. (Image credit: Hughrance on Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

How Are Tectonics Measured?

Seismometers are instruments used to record changes in tectonics, such as earthquakes. These devices detect motion in the Earth at their location, and that information is relayed to a recording system.

The Richter scale is designed to use seismometer data to calculate the intensity of an earthquake. Using readings from a seismometer, the data is applied to a scale that ranges from 0 to 10.

Most earthquakes that happen around the world are very small. The largest earthquake ever recorded measured a whopping 9.5 on the Richter scale.

Richter Magnitude Scale
Calculating the intensity of Earthquake using the Richter Scale. (Image credit: Benjamin J. Burger on Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

Why Are Plate Tectonics So Important on Earth?

Without plate tectonics, the Earth would be a much different place. At the very least, the Earth would be a lot less mountainous with less volcanic activity and fewer valleys for water.

Things could be a lot worse, though. Plate tectonics allow for just the right amount of heat to escape the Earth. Without this balance, the surface would overheat, and life would not be able to survive. If you find that hard to believe, just ask Venus!

Fortunately, the Earth is alive with shifting plates and volcanic activity that can escape as needed to keep our Earth at the right temperature for our survival.

Could the Moon’s Formation Have Played a Role in Earth’s Tectonics?

While still in the realm of speculation, more and more scientists are turning to the belief that the Moon may have formed as the result of a collision between the Earth and another heavenly object. This impact could have contributed to the Earth’s tectonic cracks, and the debris could have merged into what we now know as the Moon.

It’s also possible that such an event could have contributed to some of the deep ocean-filled trenches that exist today. Without these deep valleys, most of the Earth’s current landmass would be covered in ocean water, leaving us very few places to live.

An interesting theory about the formation of the Earth and the Moon.

Does the Moon Have Tectonic Plates?

The Moon, our closest celestial friend, could not be more different than Earth. It is a rocky, barren wasteland of gray rock and little else.

The Moon does have tectonic activity from time to time, including moonquakes that would register over 5.0 on our Richter scale. These rumblings do not come from tectonic plates, though, as the Moon does not have any.

Why Do Plate Tectonics Not Occur on the Moon?

There are a few factors that directly play into why our Moon does not have tectonic plates.

The Moon is actually quite large for a planetary satellite, being the fifth largest in the entire Solar System. That being said, the Moon is still only about a quarter of the size of the Earth.

On Earth, smaller objects cool at a much faster rate than larger ones. A large pot of soup takes a lot longer to cool than the portion you transfer to a smaller bowl.

This logic is no different in space, and the Moon’s smaller size has caused it to cool much faster than Earth as it formed. As a result, the Moon’s crust formed a solid shell instead of individual plates due to the moon’s surface temperature. The mantle layer is much cooler and doesn’t allow for plate movement anyway.

Earth-moon size comparison
Earth and the Moon size comparison. (Image credit: Lsmpascal on Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Is the Moon Tectonically Dead?

Interestingly enough, the Moon still has quakes. When the Apollo astronauts left seismometers on the surface, the devices recorded rumblings for some eight years before they stopped functioning.

Within the last few years, scientists have discovered new ridges on the Moon’s surface. Even without tectonic plates, the Moon still shows some minor signs of volcanic life somewhere below the surface.

Are There Any Celestial Bodies Besides Earth With Tectonics?

Scientists have long searched for other celestial bodies inside the Solar System for tectonic activity.

Gas planets are ruled out because they have no solid surface, with the possible exception of a very tightly packed core.

The Solar System’s hot, rocky planets don’t have crusts that support plate tectonics, and the result would be catastrophic for life. Mars may have had plate tectonics at one point but has since cooled like our Moon and is no longer active.

Most moons are too small for tectonics, but the closest thing scientists have discovered to Earth’s tectonic plates are the icy plates of Jupiter’s Moon, Europa. Recent discoveries show these plates moving and colliding, similar to the plates on Earth. Time will tell how accurate this assessment is and what implications it may have.

Europa's Tectonic Plates
Plate Tectonics on Europa, Jupiter’s moon. (Image credit: NASA/Noah Kroese, I.NK)

Final Thoughts

While our Solar System is filled with incredible worlds, the Earth is unique when it comes to rocky tectonic plates. Scientists are looking to worlds beyond our Solar System for similar tectonic plates, as they believe this could indicate another planet with life.

The Moon has a significant impact on the Earth, from tides to reflected light. Life would be a lot different without it. It may lack tectonic plates, but our only satellite is still full of mysteries for us to discover.

Whenever you capture images of our celestial neighbor, remember that there’s still some activity churning below the surface, however small it may be.

About Noah Zelvis

Noah is a content writer who has had a love of all things astronomy for as long as he can remember.
When not reaching for the stars, you’ll likely find Noah traveling or running.