Explainer: Earth’s Tectonic Plates
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Explainer: Earth’s Tectonic Plates

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explaining tectonic plate theory

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Explainer: Earth’s Tectonic Plates

It’s widely understood that Earth’s lithosphere (or outer crust) is made up of moving slabs of rock, better known as the tectonic plates.

These plates only move a couple of inches each year. However, these tiny movements add up over time and cause some of Earth’s most well-known phenomena. Today, the Earth looks a lot different than it did millions of years ago.

This graphic by Giulia De Amicis provides a brief explanation of plate tectonic theory and shows a map of the seven major plates.

Plate Tectonic Theory

In the early 20th century, German geologist Alfred Wegener published a paper on his theory called continental drift—a hypothesis that Earth’s continents were moving across Earth, and sometimes, even colliding into one another.

According to Wegener’s theory, Earth’s continents were once joined as a single, giant landmass, which he called Pangaea. But over time, Pangaea broke apart and formed the continents as we know them today.

Wegener couldn’t explain why this phenomenon was happening, so at the time, his theory was heavily criticized by his colleagues. But over the years, technological advances allowed scientists to study the Earth more closely, and geologists started to build on Wegener’s theory.

Discoveries like seafloor spreading helped explain the “why” behind continental movement, and eventually, Wegener’s initial continental drift theory morphed into plate tectonic theory. And now, the idea that Earth’s crust is slowly moving beneath our feet is widely accepted.

The Seven Major Tectonic Plates

There are seven major plates, and dozens of minor plates, that make up the outer crust of the Earth. The big seven are:

  • North American plate
  • Eurasian plate
  • Pacific plate
  • South American plate
  • African plate
  • Indo-Australian plate
  • Antarctic plate

The areas between these plates are known as plate boundaries, and their interactions cause some crazy things to happen on Earth’s surface. There are three types of plate boundaries:

1. Divergent boundary

A divergent boundary is when two plates move away from each other, which creates a fracture in the lithosphere.

A well-known divergent boundary is the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which runs approximately 10,000 miles from the Arctic Ocean all the way down to the south of Africa.

2. Convergent boundary

A convergent boundary is when two plates collide with one another.

If the collision is between oceanic crust and continental crust, the denser oceanic crust slides underneath the other plate, which is a process known as subduction.

When two continental crusts collide, the rock folds and lifts at the boundary, creating mountains like the Himalayas (where the Indian plate meets the Eurasian plate).

3. Transform Boundary

When two plates move parallel to one another, their meeting point is called a transform boundary.

The friction causes tension. Eventually, that tension needs to be released, which can cause earthquakes. The San Andreas Fault is a well-known major transform boundary between the North American and Pacific plates—it caused the infamous San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

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This article was published as a part of Visual Capitalist's Creator Program, which features data-driven visuals from some of our favorite Creators around the world.

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Visualizing the Relationship Between Cancer and Lifespan

New research links mutation rates and lifespan. We visualize the data supporting this new framework for understanding cancer.

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Cancer and lifespan

A Newfound Link Between Cancer and Aging?

A new study in 2022 reveals a thought-provoking relationship between how long animals live and how quickly their genetic codes mutate.

Cancer is a product of time and mutations, and so researchers investigated its onset and impact within 16 unique mammals. A new perspective on DNA mutation broadens our understanding of aging and cancer development—and how we might be able to control it.

Mutations, Aging, and Cancer: A Primer

Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells. It is not a pathogen that infects the body, but a normal body process gone wrong.

Cells divide and multiply in our bodies all the time. Sometimes, during DNA replication, tiny mistakes (called mutations) appear randomly within the genetic code. Our bodies have mechanisms to correct these errors, and for much of our youth we remain strong and healthy as a result of these corrective measures.

However, these protections weaken as we age. Developing cancer becomes more likely as mutations slip past our defenses and continue to multiply. The longer we live, the more mutations we carry, and the likelihood of them manifesting into cancer increases.

A Biological Conundrum

Since mutations can occur randomly, biologists expect larger lifeforms (those with more cells) to have greater chances of developing cancer than smaller lifeforms.

Strangely, no association exists.

It is one of biology’s biggest mysteries as to why massive creatures like whales or elephants rarely seem to experience cancer. This is called Peto’s Paradox. Even stranger: some smaller creatures, like the naked mole rat, are completely resistant to cancer.

This phenomenon motivates researchers to look into the genetics of naked mole rats and whales. And while we’ve discovered that special genetic bonuses (like extra tumor-suppressing genes) benefit these creatures, a pattern for cancer rates across all other species is still poorly understood.

Cancer May Be Closely Associated with Lifespan

Researchers at the Wellcome Sanger Institute report the first study to look at how mutation rates compare with animal lifespans.

Mutation rates are simply the speed at which species beget mutations. Mammals with shorter lifespans have average mutation rates that are very fast. A mouse undergoes nearly 800 mutations in each of its four short years on Earth. Mammals with longer lifespans have average mutation rates that are much slower. In humans (average lifespan of roughly 84 years), it comes to fewer than 50 mutations per year.

The study also compares the number of mutations at time of death with other traits, like body mass and lifespan. For example, a giraffe has roughly 40,000 times more cells than a mouse. Or a human lives 90 times longer than a mouse. What surprised researchers was that the number of mutations at time of death differed only by a factor of three.

Such small differentiation suggests there may be a total number of mutations a species can collect before it dies. Since the mammals reached this number at different speeds, finding ways to control the rate of mutations may help stall cancer development, set back aging, and prolong life.

The Future of Cancer Research

The findings in this study ignite new questions for understanding cancer.

Confirming that mutation rate and lifespan are strongly correlated needs comparison to lifeforms beyond mammals, like fishes, birds, and even plants.

It will also be necessary to understand what factors control mutation rates. The answer to this likely lies within the complexities of DNA. Geneticists and oncologists are continuing to investigate genetic curiosities like tumor-suppressing genes and how they might impact mutation rates.

Aging is likely to be a confluence of many issues, like epigenetic changes or telomere shortening, but if mutations are involved then there may be hopes of slowing genetic damage—or even reversing it.

While just a first step, linking mutation rates to lifespan is a reframing of our understanding of cancer development, and it may open doors to new strategies and therapies for treating cancer or taming the number of health-related concerns that come with aging.

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Misc

Visualizing Which Countries Drink the Most Beer

Which countries drink the most beer? China ranks number one due to its sheer size, and the Czech Republic comes out on top, per capita.

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Visualizing Which Countries Drink the Most Beer

Humans have been drinking beer for thousands of years—and since it’s still one of the most popular beverages worldwide, it seems we haven’t gotten sick of it yet. The latest available data shows that beer consumption exceeded 177 million kiloliters around the world in 2020.

Beer consumption occurs all over the world, but the amount varies greatly depending on the location. So, which countries drink the most beer?

This graphic uses data from Kirin Holdings to compare global beer consumption by country. Kirin is a Japanese company that has been tracking beer consumption around the world since 1975.

Which Countries Drink the Most Beer?

When it comes to total beer consumption, China ranks number one.

In 2020, the country’s consumption reached 36 million kiloliters—that’s enough beer to fill more than 14,000 Olympic-sized pools. The country accounts for a whopping one-fifth of total beer consumption worldwide. Archaeological evidence also suggests that China has a beer producing history that goes back thousands of years.

Here’s a look at the top 25 countries for beer consumption, and their global market share:

Ranking 2020CountryTotal Consumption
(thousand kl)
Global Market
Share
1🇨🇳​ China36,08820.30%
2🇺🇸​ United States of America24,10513.60%
3🇧🇷​ Brazil13,8477.80%
4🇷🇺​ Russia8,6464.90%
5🇲🇽​ Mexico8,2874.70%
6🇩🇪​ Germany7,7464.40%
7🇯🇵 Japan4,4162.50%
8​🇬🇧​ United Kingdom4,0882.30%
9🇻🇳​ Vietnam3,8452.20%
10🇪🇸 Spain3,8152.10%
11​🇵🇱 Poland3,6332.00%
12​🇿🇦​ South Africa3,2841.90%
13🇨🇴​ Colombia2,2461.30%
14🇫🇷 France1,9841.10%
15​🇨🇦​ Canada1,9791.10%
16🇨🇿 Czech Republic1,9461.10%
17​🇰🇷 South Korea1,9361.10%
18​🇮🇹​ Italy1,8861.10%
19🇺🇦​ Ukraine1,8811.10%
20🇷🇴​ Romania1,8281.00%
21🇦🇺 Australia1,8251.00%
22🇦🇷​ Argentina1,7971.00%
23​🇮🇳 India1,6860.90%
24🇹🇭 Thailand1,6800.90%
25​​🇵🇭​ Philippines1,4620.80%
Rest of the World31,56317.78%

China is the most populous country in the world, accounting for about 18% of the global population. Of course, a large population doesn’t necessarily translate to high beer consumption at the individual level. For instance, India, which has the second highest population in the world, ranks 23rd on the list for beer consumption, and only accounts for 1% of what foamy liquid gets guzzled down each year.

The U.S. comes second on the list, with more than 24 million kiloliters of beer consumed throughout the country in 2020. Americans don’t just drink a lot of beer—they brew a lot of beer, too. The U.S. is the second-largest beer producer worldwide (after China).

Beer Consumption Per Capita

Things look a bit different when you look at beer consumption per capita, rather than total beer consumption. The Czech Republic comes in first when it comes to beer consumption per capita.

In 2020, the average Czech drank more than 181 liters of beer.

chart showing beer consumption per capita by country in 2022

The Czech Republic is well-known for inexpensive beer. Some travel sites even claim that, in certain parts of the country, beer can be cheaper than bottled water.

International Beer Day

While consumption levels vary across the world, beer is an integral part of many countries’ cultures. In fact, the beverage is so popular, that it’s been given its own day. International Beer Day is celebrated on the first Friday of every August in over 200 cities across the globe.

Cheers, and happy sipping!

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