seafloor spreading

seafloor spreading

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 drift and provided a conceptual base for the development of plate tectonics.

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 faults. 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 paleomagnetism). 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).

Theory that oceanic crust forms along submarine mountain zones, known collectively as the oceanic ridge system, and spreads out laterally away from them. This idea, proposed by U.S. geophysicist Harry H. Hess (1906–1969) in 1960, was pivotal in the development of the theory of plate tectonics.

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Seafloor spreading occurs at mid-ocean ridges, where new oceanic crust is formed through volcanic activity and then gradually moves away from the ridge. Seafloor spreading helps explain continental drift in the theory of plate tectonics.

Earlier theories (e.g., by Alfred Wegener) of continental drift were that continents "plowed" through the sea. The idea that the seafloor itself moves (and carries the continents with it) as it expands from a central axis was proposed by Harry Hess from Princeton University in the 1960s. The theory is well-accepted now, and the phenomenon is known to be caused by convection currents in the plastic, very weak upper mantle, or asthenosphere.

Incipient spreading

In the general case, sea floor spreading starts as a rift in a continental land mass, similar to the Red Sea-East Africa Rift System today. The process starts with heating at the base of the continental crust which causes it to become more plastic and less dense. Because less dense objects rise in relation to more dense objects, the area being heated becomes a broad dome (see isostasy). As the crust bows upward, fractures occur that gradually grow into rifts. The typical rift system consists of three rift arms at approximately 120 degree angles. These areas are named triple junctions and can be found in several places across the world today. The separated margins of the continents evolve to form passive margins.

Early spreading

If spreading continues past the incipient stage described above, two of the rift arms will open while the third arm stops opening and becomes a 'failed rift'. As the two active rifts continue to open, eventually the continental crust is attenuated as far as it will stretch. At this point basaltic oceanic crust begins to form between the separating continental fragments. When one of the rifts opens into the existing ocean, the rift system is flooded with seawater and becomes a new sea. The Red Sea is an example of a new arm of the sea. The East African rift was thought to be a "failed" arm that was opening somewhat more slowly than the other two arms, but in 2005 the Ethiopian Afar Geophysical Lithospheric Experiment reported that in the Afar region last September, a 60 km fissure opened as wide as eight meters. During this period of initial flooding the new sea is sensitive to changes in climate and eustasy. As a result the new sea will evaporate (partially or completely) several times before the elevation of the rift valley has been lowered to the point that the sea becomes stable. During this period of evaporation large evaporite deposits will be made in the rift valley. Later these deposits have the potential to become hydrocarbon seals and are of particular interest to petroleum geologists.

Sea floor spreading can stop during the process, but if it continues to the point that the continent is completely severed, then a new ocean basin is created. The Red Sea has not yet completely split Arabia from Africa, but a similar feature can be found on the other side of Africa that has broken completely free. South America once fit into the area of the Niger Delta. The Niger River has formed in the failed rift arm of the triple junction.

Continued spreading and subduction

The new oceanic crust is quite hot relative to old oceanic crust, so the new oceanic basin is shallower than older oceanic basins. If the diameter of the earth remains relatively constant despite the production of new crust, a mechanism must exist by which crust is also destroyed. The destruction of oceanic crust occurs at subduction zones where oceanic crust is forced under either continental crust or oceanic crust. Today, the Atlantic basin is actively spreading at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Only a small portion of the oceanic crust produced in the Atlantic is subducted. However, the plates making up the Pacific Ocean are experiencing subduction along many of their boundaries which causes the volcanic activity in what has been termed the Ring of Fire of the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific is also home to one of the world's most active spreading centres (the East Pacific Rise (EPR)) with spreading rates of up to 13 cm/yr. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is a "textbook" slow spreading centre while the EPR is used as an example of fast spreading. The differences in spreading rates affect not only the geometries of the ridges but also the geochemistry of the basalts that are produced.

Since the new oceanic basins are shallower than the old oceanic basins, the total capacity of the world's ocean basins decreases during times of active sea floor spreading. During the opening of the Atlantic Ocean, sea level was so high that a Western Interior Seaway formed across North America from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean.

Debate and search for mechanism

At the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (and other places), material from the upper mantle rises through the faults between oceanic plates to form new crust as the plates move away from each other, a phenomenon first observed as continental drift. When Alfred Wegener first presented a hypothesis of continental drift in 1912, conservative geologists, especially in North America, demanded to know where the motive force could possibly lie. Wegener suggested that the continents ploughed through the ocean crust. Since then, it has been shown, that the motion of the continents is linked to seafloor spreading. In the 1960s, the past record of geomagnetic reversals was noticed by observing the magnetic stripe "anomalies" on the ocean floor. This results in broadly evident "stripes" from which the past magnetic field polarity can be inferred by looking at the data gathered from simply towing a magnetometer on the sea surface or from an aircraft. The stripes on one side of the mid-ocean ridge were the mirror image of those on the other side. The seafloor must have originated on the earth's great fiery welts, like the mid-Atlantic Ridge and the East Pacific Rise.

It is still a matter of some debate whether seafloor spreading is driven primarily by the force of rising magma at these locations, or if it is driven by the force of sinking oceanic crust at subduction zones and these upwellings are merely a side effect. It is likely however that some seafloor spreading is driven by active upwelling and some by passive upwelling.

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