The continental shelf is the extended perimeter of each continent and associated coastal plain, which is covered during interglacial periods such as the current epoch by relatively shallow seas (known as shelf seas) and gulfs.
The continental rise is below the slope, but landward of the abyssal plains. Its gradient is intermediate between the slope and the shelf, on the order of 0.5-1°. Extending as far as 500 km from the slope, it consists of thick sediments deposited by turbidity currents from the shelf and slope. Sediment cascades down the slope and accumulates as a pile of sediment at the base of the slope, called the continental rise.
The width of the continental shelf varies considerably – it is not uncommon for an area to have virtually no shelf at all, particularly where the forward edge of an advancing oceanic plate
dives beneath continental crust
in an offshore subduction zone
such as off the coast of Chile
or the west coast of Sumatra
. The largest shelf – the Siberian Shelf
in the Arctic Ocean
– stretches to 1500 kilometers
) in width. The South China Sea
lies over another extensive area of continental shelf, the Sunda Shelf
, which joins Borneo
, Sumatra, and Java
to the Asian mainland. Other familiar bodies of water that overlie continental shelves are the North Sea
and the Persian Gulf
. The average width of continental shelves is about 80 km (50 mi). The depth of the shelf also varies, but is generally limited to water shallower than 150 m
(490 ft). The slope of the shelf is usually quite low, on the order of 0.5°; vertical relief is also minimal, at less than 20 m (65 ft).
Though the continental shelf is treated as a physiographic province of the ocean, it is not part of the deep ocean basin proper, but the flooded margins of the continent. Passive continental margins such as most of the Atlantic coasts have wide and shallow shelves, made of thick sedimentary wedges derived from long erosion of a neighboring continent. Active continental margins have narrow, relatively steep shelves, due to frequent earthquakes that move sediment to the deep sea.
The shelf usually ends at a point of decreasing slope (called the shelf break
). The sea floor below the break is the continental slope
. Below the slope is the continental rise
, which finally merges into the deep ocean floor, the abyssal plain
. The continental shelf and the slope are part of the continental margin
The shelf area is commonly subdivided into the inner continental shelf
, mid continental shelf
, and outer continental shelf
, each with their specific geomorphology
and marine biology
The character of the shelf changes dramatically at the shelf break, where the continental slope begins. With a few exceptions, the shelf break is located at a remarkably uniform depth of roughly 140 m (460 ft); this is likely a hallmark of past ice ages, when sea level was lower than it is now.
The continental slope is much steeper than the shelf; the average angle is 3°, but it can be as low as 1° or as high as 10°. The slope is often cut with submarine canyons
, features whose origin was mysterious for many years.
The continental shelves are covered by terrigenous
sediments; that is, those derived from erosion of the continents. However, little of the sediment is from current rivers
; some 60-70% of the sediment on the world's shelves is relict sediment
, deposited during the last ice age, when sea level was 100-120 m lower than it is now.
Sediments usually become increasingly fine with distance from the coast; sand is limited to shallow, wave-agitated waters, while silt and clays are deposited in quieter, deep water far offshore. These shelf sediments accumulate at an average rate of 30 cm/1000 years, with a range from 15-40 cm. Though slow by human standards, this rate is much faster than that for deep-sea pelagic sediments.
Combined with the sunlight available in shallow waters, the continental shelves teem with life compared to the biotic desert of the oceans' abyssal plain. The pelagic (water column) environment of the continental shelf constitutes the neritic zone, and the benthic (sea floor) province of the shelf is the sublittoral zone.
Though the shelves are usually fertile, if anoxic conditions in the sedimentary deposits prevail, the shelves may in geologic time become sources of fossil fuels.
The relatively accessible continental shelf is the best understood part of the ocean floor. Most commercial exploitation from the sea, such as metallic-ore, non-metallic ore, and hydrocarbon extraction, takes place on the continental shelf. Sovereign rights over their continental shelves up to 350 nautical miles from the coast were claimed by the marine nations that signed the Convention on the Continental Shelf drawn up by the UN's International Law Commission in 1958 partly superseded by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
- Gross, Grant M. Oceanography: A View of the Earth. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972. ISBN 0-13-629659-9
- Pinet, Paul R. (1996) Invitation to Oceanography. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co., 1996. ISBN 0-7637-2136-0 (3rd ed.)