Plate tectonics (from the Late Latin tectonicus, from the Greek: τεκτονικός "pertaining to building") is a scientific theory that describes the large-scale motions of Earth's lithosphere. The model builds on the concepts of continental drift, developed during the first few decades of the 20th century. The geoscientific community accepted the theory after the concepts of seafloor spreading were developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The lithosphere is broken up into tectonic plates. On Earth, there are seven or eight major plates (depending on how they are defined) and many minor plates. Where plates meet, their relative motion determines the type of boundary: convergent, divergent, or transform. Earthquakes, volcanic activity, mountain-building, and oceanic trench formation occur along these plate boundaries. The lateral relative movement of the plates typically varies from zero to 100 mm annually.
Tectonic plates are composed of oceanic lithosphere and thicker continental lithosphere, each topped by its own kind of crust. Along convergent boundaries, subduction carries plates into the mantle; the material lost is roughly balanced by the formation of new (oceanic) crust along divergent margins by seafloor spreading. In this way, the total surface of the globe remains the same. This prediction of plate tectonics is also referred to as the conveyor belt principle. Earlier theories (that still have some supporters) proposed gradual shrinking (contraction) or gradual expansion of the globe.