seafloor spreading

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seafloor spreading,

theory of lithospheric evolution that holds that the ocean floors are spreading outward from vast underwater ridges. First proposed in the early 1960s by the American geologist Harry H. Hess, its major tenets gave great support to the theory of continental driftcontinental drift,
geological theory that the relative positions of the continents on the earth's surface have changed considerably through geologic time. Though first proposed by American geologist Frank Bursley Taylor in a lecture in 1908, the first detailed theory of
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 and provided a conceptual base for the development of plate tectonicsplate tectonics,
theory that unifies many of the features and characteristics of continental drift and seafloor spreading into a coherent model and has revolutionized geologists' understanding of continents, ocean basins, mountains, and earth history.
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Discovery of the Mid-Ocean Ridges

Development of highly sophisticated seismic recorders and precision depth recorders in the 1950s led to the discovery in the early 1960s that the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a vast, sinuous undersea mountain chain bisecting the Atlantic Ocean, was in fact only a small segment of a globe-girdling undersea mountain system some 40,000 mi (64,000 km) in length. In many locations, this mid-ocean ridge was found to contain a gigantic cleft, or rift, 20 to 30 mi (32–48 km) wide and c.1 mi (1.6 km) deep, extending along the crest of the ridge. The ridge itself does not form a smooth path, but is instead offset in many places. The offsets are called fracture zones, or transform faultsfault,
in geology, fracture in the earth's crust in which the rock on one side of the fracture has measurable movement in relation to the rock on the other side. Faults on other planets and satellites of the solar system also have been recognized.
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. The ridge crest and its associated transform faults are the locus of nearly all shallow earthquakes occurring in mid-ocean areas. Continued study of the mid-ocean ridges is a major component of U.S. research in the global oceans.

Role of the Spreading Center

In 1962 Hess proposed that the seafloor was created at mid-ocean ridges, spreading in both directions from the ridge system. At the spreading center, liquid rock called basaltic magma rises from the earth's mantle as it upwells beneath the spreading axis. When the magma hardens, it forms new oceanic crust that becomes welded to the original crust. Spreading is believed to be caused by far-field stresses, and the upwelling of the mantle beneath the spreading axis is the passive response to plate separation. The oceanic trenches bordering the continents mark regions where the oldest oceanic crust is reabsorbed into the mantle through steeply inclined, earthquake-prone subduction zones. The pull of the deeply plunging lithosphere is one of the forces that may drive plate separation.

Supporting Evidence for Seafloor Spreading

Abundant evidence supports the major contentions of the seafloor-spreading theory. First, samples of the deep ocean floor show that basaltic oceanic crust and overlying sediment become progressively younger as the mid-ocean ridge is approached, and the sediment cover is thinner near the ridge. Second, the rock making up the ocean floor is considerably younger than the continents, with no samples found over 200 million years old, as contrasted with maximum ages of over 3 billion years for the continental rocks. This confirms that older ocean crust has been reabsorbed in ocean trench systems.

By the mid-1960s studies of the earth's magnetic field showed a history of periodic reversals in polarity (see paleomagnetismpaleomagnetism,
study of the intensity and orientation of the earth's magnetic field as preserved in the magnetic orientation of certain minerals found in rocks formed throughout geologic time.
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). A timescale for "normal" and "reversed" polarity was established, showing 171 magnetic "flip-flops" in the past 76 million years. Magnetic surveys conducted near the mid-ocean ridge showed elongated patterns of normal and reversed polarity of the ocean floor in bands paralleling the rift and symmetrically distributed as mirror images on either side of it. The magnetic history of the earth is thus recorded in the spreading ocean floors as in a very slow magnetic tape recording, forming a continuous record of the movement of the ocean floors. Other supportive evidence has emerged from study of the fracture zones that offset the sections of the ridge.


See J. Coulomb, Sea Floor Spreading and Continental Drift (1972).

References in periodicals archive ?
The eastern Grand Banks margin formed as a result of the rifting and subsequent seafloor spreading that separated it from the Iberian margin.
The passive margin and wrenching phase was initiated with seafloor spreading that began in Late Albian time and continues to the present.
Then in the 20th century, researchers came to realize that the field had actually reversed itself many times over the course of Earth's history--which, in turn, led to discoveries that bolstered then-controversial theories of seafloor spreading and continental drift.
There is now convincing evidence to indicate that the arrival of this same plume can be linked to the onset of seafloor spreading in both Labrador Sea-Baffin Bay (at 62 Ma) and in the North Atlantic, north of the Charlie Gibbs Fracture Zone (at 55 Ma).
Nearly all of the major Earth-shaping features and processes--seafloor volcanism, hydrothermal vent systems, earthquakes, seafloor spreading, and subduction zones--converge in a reasonably small geographic area.
Theory predicted that as seafloor spreading slowed along the ridge, volcanism would wither and the ridge would become essentially a crack in the planet where solid mantle rock would be pulled up by the spreading plates to form new seafloor.
Until recently, most scientists thought the amount of hydrothermal activity along a particular portion of a midocean ridge depended on the rate of seafloor spreading there, says Edmonds.
Seafloor spreading carries older oceanic crust away from the ridges over tens of millions of years, until it cools, becomes denser, and "falls" back into the mantle in areas known as subduction zones.
Rocks from a deep-ocean site would have been destroyed long ago by seafloor spreading.
During periods of rapid versus slow seafloor spreading, different dissolved ions become prevalent in the waters, says Lowenstein.
Yet it encompasses all the major Earth-shaping plate tectonic processes, including submarine volcanism, earthquake activity, hydrothermal venting, seafloor spreading, and subduction.