The mechanical disconnection of the lithosphere from the Earth’s deep mantle by a more ductile zone in the upper mantle – the asthenosphere – suggests that the lithosphere might move independently. If that were the case then points on the surface would shift relative to the axis of rotation and the magnetic poles, irrespective of plate tectonics. So it makes sense to speak of absolute and relative motions of tectonic plates. The second relates to plates’ motions relative to each other and to the ancient position of the magnetic poles, assumed to be reasonably close to that of the past pole of rotation, yet measurable from the direction of palaeomagnetism retained in rocks on this or that tectonic plate. Plotting palaeomagnetic pole positions through time for each tectonic plate gives the impression that the poles have wandered. Such apparent polar wandering has long been a key element in judging ancient plate motions. Absolute plate motion judges the direction and speed of plates relative to supposedly fixed mantle plumes beneath volcanic hot spots, the classic case being Hawaii, over which the Pacific Plate has moved to leave a chain of extinct volcanoes that become progressively older to the west. But it turns out that between about 80 to 50 Ma there are some gross misfits using the hot-spot frame of reference. An example is the 60° bend of the Hawaiian chain to become the Emperor seamount chain that some have ascribed to hot spots shifting (see http://earth-pages.co.uk/2009/05/01/the-great-bend-of-the-pacific-ocean-floor/).
Ideas have shifted dramatically since it became clear that hot spots can shift, and there has been an attempt to estimate their actual motions (Doubrovine, P.V. et al. 2012. Absolute plate motions in a reference frame defined by moving hot spots in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans. Journal of Geophysics Research: Solid Earth, v. 117, B09101, doi:10.1029/2011JB009072). It is early days for the revised view of absolute motion of the lithosphere and estimates go back only 120 Ma. However, one outcome has been a realistic examination of whether the positions of the poles have shifted through time; a possibility that is hidden in apparent polar wander paths. Since the mid-Cretaceous it seems that a slow and hesitant, but significant polar shuffle has taken place, varying between 0.1 and 1.0° Ma-1, starting in one direction and then the movement retraced its steps to achieve the current proximity of magnetic poles to the poles of rotation.
- Shell Game: Earth’s Wandering Outer Layers Mystify (livescience.com)
- No absolutes: How shifting plates completely remake the Earth (arstechnica.com)