Lava spews out of a fissure in the Virunga mountains in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Virunga chain is part of the East African Rift Valley system, which marks the boundary between two plates: the Nubian plate to the west and the Somalian plate to the east. The rift valley is a classic example of a divergent plate boundary.
The Earth's plates jostle about in fits and starts that are punctuated with earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
There are a few handfuls of major plates and dozens of smaller, or minor, plates. Six of the majors are named for the continents embedded within them, such as the North American, African, and Antarctic plates. Though smaller in size, the minors are no less important when it comes to shaping the Earth. The tiny Juan de Fuca plate is largely responsible for the volcanoes that dot the Pacific Northwest of the United States.
The plates make up Earth's outer shell, called the lithosphere. (This includes the crust and uppermost part of the mantle.) Churning currents in the molten rocks below propel them along like a jumble of conveyor belts in disrepair. Most geologic activity stems from the interplay