Seafloor spreading

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Age of oceanic lithosphere; youngest (red) is along spreading centers Age of oceanic lithosphere.png
Age of oceanic lithosphere; youngest (red) is along spreading centers

Seafloor spreading is a process that occurs at mid-ocean ridges, where new oceanic crust is formed through volcanic activity and then gradually moves away from the ridge.

Contents

History of study

Earlier theories by Alfred Wegener and Alexander du Toit of continental drift postulated that continents in motion "plowed" through the fixed and immovable seafloor. The idea that the seafloor itself moves and also carries the continents with it as it spreads from a central rift axis was proposed by Harold Hammond Hess from Princeton University and Robert Dietz of the U.S. Naval Electronics Laboratory in San Diego in the 1960s. [1] [2] The phenomenon is known today as plate tectonics. In locations where two plates move apart, at mid-ocean ridges, new seafloor is continually formed during seafloor spreading.

Significance

Seafloor spreading helps explain continental drift in the theory of plate tectonics. When oceanic plates diverge, tensional stress causes fractures to occur in the lithosphere. The motivating force for seafloor spreading ridges is tectonic plate slab pull at subduction zones, rather than magma pressure, although there is typically significant magma activity at spreading ridges. [3] Plates that are not subducting are driven by gravity sliding off the elevated mid-ocean ridges a process called ridge push. [4] At a spreading center, basaltic magma rises up the fractures and cools on the ocean floor to form new seabed. Hydrothermal vents are common at spreading centers. Older rocks will be found farther away from the spreading zone while younger rocks will be found nearer to the spreading zone.

Spreading rate is the rate at which an ocean basin widens due to seafloor spreading. (The rate at which new oceanic lithosphere is added to each tectonic plate on either side of a mid-ocean ridge is the spreading half-rate and is equal to half of the spreading rate). Spreading rates determine if the ridge is fast, intermediate, or slow. As a general rule, fast ridges have spreading (opening) rates of more than 90 mm/year. Intermediate ridges have a spreading rate of 40–90 mm/year while slow spreading ridges have a rate less than 40 mm/year. [5] [6] [7] :2 The highest known rate was over 200 mm/yr during the Miocene on the East Pacific Rise. [8]

In the 1960s, the past record of geomagnetic reversals of Earth's magnetic field was noticed by observing magnetic stripe "anomalies" on the ocean floor. [9] [10] This results in broadly evident "stripes" from which the past magnetic field polarity can be inferred from data gathered with a magnetometer towed 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. By identifying a reversal with a known age and measuring the distance of that reversal from the spreading center, the spreading half-rate could be computed.

magnetic stripes formed during seafloor spreading Polarityshift.gif
magnetic stripes formed during seafloor spreading

In some locations spreading rates have been found to be asymmetric; the half rates differ on each side of the ridge crest by about five percent. [11] [12] This is thought due to temperature gradients in the asthenosphere from mantle plumes near the spreading center. [12]

Spreading center

Seafloor spreading occurs at spreading centers, distributed along the crests of mid-ocean ridges. Spreading centers end in transform faults or in overlapping spreading center offsets. A spreading center includes a seismically active plate boundary zone a few kilometers to tens of kilometers wide, a crustal accretion zone within the boundary zone where the ocean crust is youngest, and an instantaneous plate boundary - a line within the crustal accretion zone demarcating the two separating plates. [13] Within the crustal accretion zone is a 1-2 km-wide neovolcanic zone where active volcanism occurs. [14] [15]

Incipient spreading

Plates in the crust of the earth, according to the plate tectonics theory Plates tect2 en.svg
Plates in the crust of the earth, according to the plate tectonics theory

In the general case, seafloor spreading starts as a rift in a continental land mass, similar to the Red Sea-East Africa Rift System today. [16] The process starts by 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 denser 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. Hess' theory was that new seafloor is formed when magma is forced upward toward the surface at a mid-ocean ridge.

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' or aulacogen. 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 and upper mantle lithosphere 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 more slowly than the other two arms, but in 2005 the Ethiopian Afar Geophysical Lithospheric Experiment [17] reported that in the Afar region, September 2005, a 60 km fissure opened as wide as eight meters. [18] 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.

Seafloor 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. [19]

Continued spreading and subduction

Spreading at a mid-ocean ridge Ridge render.jpg
Spreading at a mid-ocean ridge

As new seafloor forms and spreads apart from the mid-ocean ridge it slowly cools over time. Older seafloor is, therefore, colder than new seafloor, and older oceanic basins deeper than new oceanic basins due to isostasy. 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 centers (the East Pacific Rise) with spreading rates of up to 145 +/- 4 mm/yr between the Pacific and Nazca plates. [20] The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is a slow-spreading center, while the East Pacific Rise is an example of fast spreading. Spreading centers at slow and intermediate rates exhibit a rift valley while at fast rates an axial high is found within the crustal accretion zone. [6] The differences in spreading rates affect not only the geometries of the ridges but also the geochemistry of the basalts that are produced. [21]

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 in other mid-ocean ridges), 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, he suggested that continents plowed through the ocean crust. This was impossible: oceanic crust is both more dense and more rigid than continental crust. Accordingly, Wegener's theory wasn't taken very seriously, especially in the United States.

At first the driving force for spreading was argued to be convection currents in the mantle. [22] Since then, it has been shown that the motion of the continents is linked to seafloor spreading by the theory of plate tectonics, which is driven by convection that includes the crust itself as well. [4]

The driver for seafloor spreading in plates with active margins is the weight of the cool, dense, subducting slabs that pull them along, or slab pull. The magmatism at the ridge is considered to be passive upwelling, which is caused by the plates being pulled apart under the weight of their own slabs. [4] [23] This can be thought of as analogous to a rug on a table with little friction: when part of the rug is off of the table, its weight pulls the rest of the rug down with it. However, the Mid-Atlantic ridge itself is not bordered by plates that are being pulled into subduction zones, except the minor subduction in the Lesser Antilles and Scotia Arc. In this case the plates are sliding apart over the mantle upwelling in the process of ridge push. [4]

Seafloor global topography: cooling models

The depth of the seafloor (or the height of a location on a mid-ocean ridge above a base-level) is closely correlated with its age (age of the lithosphere where depth is measured). The age-depth relation can be modeled by the cooling of a lithosphere plate [24] [25] [26] [27] or mantle half-space in areas without significant subduction. [28]

Cooling mantle model

In the mantle half-space model, [28] the seabed height is determined by the oceanic lithosphere and mantle temperature, due to thermal expansion. The simple result is that the ridge height or ocean depth is proportional to the square root of its age. [28] Oceanic lithosphere is continuously formed at a constant rate at the mid-ocean ridges. The source of the lithosphere has a half-plane shape (x = 0, z < 0) and a constant temperature T1. Due to its continuous creation, the lithosphere at x > 0 is moving away from the ridge at a constant velocity v, which is assumed large compared to other typical scales in the problem. The temperature at the upper boundary of the lithosphere (z = 0) is a constant T0 = 0. Thus at x = 0 the temperature is the Heaviside step function . The system is assumed to be at a quasi-steady state, so that the temperature distribution is constant in time, i.e.

By calculating in the frame of reference of the moving lithosphere (velocity v), which has spatial coordinate and the heat equation is:

where is the thermal diffusivity of the mantle lithosphere.

Since T depends on x' and t only through the combination :

Thus:

It is assumed that is large compared to other scales in the problem; therefore the last term in the equation is neglected, giving a 1-dimensional diffusion equation:

with the initial conditions

The solution for is given by the error function:

.

Due to the large velocity, the temperature dependence on the horizontal direction is negligible, and the height at time t (i.e. of sea floor of age t) can be calculated by integrating the thermal expansion over z:

where is the effective volumetric thermal expansion coefficient, and h0 is the mid-ocean ridge height (compared to some reference).

The assumption that v is relatively large is equivalent to the assumption that the thermal diffusivity is small compared to , where L is the ocean width (from mid-ocean ridges to continental shelf) and A is the age of the ocean basin.

The effective thermal expansion coefficient is different from the usual thermal expansion coefficient due to isostasic effect of the change in water column height above the lithosphere as it expands or retracts. Both coefficients are related by:

where is the rock density and is the density of water.

By substituting the parameters by their rough estimates:

we have: [28]

where the height is in meters and time is in millions of years. To get the dependence on x, one must substitute t = x/v ~ Ax/L, where L is the distance between the ridge to the continental shelf (roughly half the ocean width), and A is the ocean basin age.

Rather than height of the ocean floor above a base or reference level , the depth of the ocean is of interest. Because (with measured from the ocean surface) we can find that:

; for the eastern Pacific for example, where is the depth at the ridge crest, typically 2600 m.

Cooling plate model

The depth predicted by the square root of seafloor age derived above is too deep for seafloor older than 80 million years. [27] Depth is better explained by a cooling lithosphere plate model rather than the cooling mantle half-space. [27] The plate has a constant temperature at its base and spreading edge. Analysis of depth versus age and depth versus square root of age data allowed Parsons and Sclater [27] to estimate model parameters (for the North Pacific):

~125 km for lithosphere thickness
at base and young edge of plate

Assuming isostatic equilibrium everywhere beneath the cooling plate yields a revised age depth relationship for older sea floor that is approximately correct for ages as young as 20 million years:

meters

Thus older seafloor deepens more slowly than younger and in fact can be assumed almost constant at ~6400 m depth. Parsons and Sclater concluded that some style of mantle convection must apply heat to the base of the plate everywhere to prevent cooling down below 125 km and lithosphere contraction (seafloor deepening) at older ages. [27] Their plate model also allowed an expression for conductive heat flow, q(t) from the ocean floor, which is approximately constant at beyond 120 million years:

See also

Related Research Articles

Plate tectonics Movement of Earths lithosphere

Plate tectonics is a scientific theory describing the large-scale motion of the plates making up Earth's lithosphere since tectonic processes began on Earth between 3.3 and 3.5 billion years ago. The model builds on the concept of continental drift, an idea developed during the first decades of the 20th century. The geoscientific community accepted plate-tectonic theory after seafloor spreading was validated in the mid to late 1960s.

Lithosphere Outermost shell of a terrestrial-type planet or natural satellite

A lithosphere is the rigid, outermost shell of a terrestrial-type planet or natural satellite. On Earth, it is composed of the crust and the portion of the upper mantle that behaves elastically on time scales of thousands of years or greater. The crust and upper mantle are distinguished on the basis of chemistry and mineralogy.

Subduction A geological process at convergent tectonic plate boundaries where one plate moves under the other

Subduction is a geological process in which the oceanic lithosphere is recycled into the Earth's mantle at convergent boundaries. Where the oceanic lithosphere of a tectonic plate converges with the less dense lithosphere of a second plate, the heavier plate dives beneath the second plate and sinks into the mantle. A region where this process occurs is known as a subduction zone, and its surface expression is known as an arc-trench complex. The process of subduction has created most of the Earth's continental crust. Rates of subduction are typically measured in centimeters per year, with the average rate of convergence being approximately two to eight centimeters per year along most plate boundaries.

Transform fault Plate boundary where the motion is predominantly horizontal

A transform fault or transform boundary, sometimes called a strike-slip boundary, is a fault along a plate boundary where the motion is predominantly horizontal. It ends abruptly where it connects to another plate boundary, either another transform, a spreading ridge, or a subduction zone. A transform fault is a special case of a strike-slip fault that also forms a plate boundary.

Divergent boundary Linear feature that exists between two tectonic plates that are moving away from each other

In plate tectonics, a divergent boundary or divergent plate boundary is a linear feature that exists between two tectonic plates that are moving away from each other. Divergent boundaries within continents initially produce rifts, which eventually become rift valleys. Most active divergent plate boundaries occur between oceanic plates and exist as mid-oceanic ridges. Divergent boundaries also form volcanic islands, which occur when the plates move apart to produce gaps that magma rises to fill.

Convergent boundary Region of active deformation between colliding tectonic plates

A convergent boundary is an area on Earth where two or more lithospheric plates collide. One plate eventually slides beneath the other, a process known as subduction. The subduction zone can be defined by a plane where many earthquakes occur, called the Wadati–Benioff zone. These collisions happen on scales of millions to tens of millions of years and can lead to volcanism, earthquakes, orogenesis, destruction of lithosphere, and deformation. Convergent boundaries occur between oceanic-oceanic lithosphere, oceanic-continental lithosphere, and continental-continental lithosphere. The geologic features related to convergent boundaries vary depending on crust types.

Rift Geological linear zone where the lithosphere is being pulled apart

In geology, a rift is a linear zone where the lithosphere is being pulled apart and is an example of extensional tectonics.

Oceanic crust Uppermost layer of the oceanic portion of a tectonic plate

The Oceanic crust is the uppermost layer of the oceanic portion of a tectonic plate. It is composed of the upper oceanic crust, with pillow lavas and a dike complex, and the lower oceanic crust, composed of troctolite, gabbro and ultramafic cumulates. The crust overlies the solidified and uppermost layer of the mantle. The crust and the solid mantle layer together constitute oceanic lithosphere.

Mid-ocean ridge Basaltic underwater mountain system formed by plate tectonic spreading

A mid-ocean ridge (MOR) is a seafloor mountain system formed by plate tectonics. It typically has a depth of ~ 2,600 meters (8,500 ft) and rises about two kilometers above the deepest portion of an ocean basin. This feature is where seafloor spreading takes place along a divergent plate boundary. The rate of seafloor spreading determines the morphology of the crest of the mid-ocean ridge and its width in an ocean basin. The production of new seafloor and oceanic lithosphere results from mantle upwelling in response to plate separation. The melt rises as magma at the linear weakness between the separating plates, and emerges as lava, creating new oceanic crust and lithosphere upon cooling. The first discovered mid-ocean ridge was the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which is a spreading center that bisects the North and South Atlantic basins; hence the origin of the name 'mid-ocean ridge'. Most oceanic spreading centers are not in the middle of their hosting ocean basis but regardless, are traditionally called mid-ocean ridges. Mid-ocean ridges around the globe are linked by plate tectonic boundaries and the trace of the ridges across the ocean floor appears similar to the seam of a baseball. The mid-ocean ridge system thus is the longest mountain range on Earth, reaching about 65,000 km (40,000 mi).

Supercontinent cycle Quasi-periodic aggregation and dispersal of Earths continental crust

The supercontinent cycle is the quasi-periodic aggregation and dispersal of Earth's continental crust. There are varying opinions as to whether the amount of continental crust is increasing, decreasing, or staying about the same, but it is agreed that the Earth's crust is constantly being reconfigured. One complete supercontinent cycle is said to take 300 to 500 million years. Continental collision makes fewer and larger continents while rifting makes more and smaller continents.

Magmatism

Magmatism is the emplacement of magma within and at the surface of the outer layers of a terrestrial planet, which solidifies as igneous rocks. It does so through magmatic activity or igneous activity, the production, intrusion and extrusion of magma or lava. Volcanism is the surface expression of magmatism.

Extensional tectonics is concerned with the structures formed by, and the tectonic processes associated with, the stretching of a planetary body's crust or lithosphere.

Back-arc basin Submarine features associated with island arcs and subduction zones

Back-arc basins are geologic basins, submarine features associated with island arcs and subduction zones. They are found at some convergent plate boundaries, presently concentrated in the western Pacific Ocean. Most of them result from tensional forces caused by oceanic trench rollback and the collapse of the edge of the continent. The arc crust is under extension or rifting as a result of the sinking of the subducting slab. Back-arc basins were initially a surprising result for plate tectonics theorists, who expected convergent boundaries to be zones of compression, rather than major extension. However, they are now recognized as consistent with this model in explaining how the interior of Earth loses heat.

Izu–Bonin–Mariana Arc

The Izu–Bonin–Mariana (IBM) arc system is a tectonic plate convergent boundary. The IBM arc system extends over 2800 km south from Tokyo, Japan, to beyond Guam, and includes the Izu Islands, the Bonin Islands, and the Mariana Islands; much more of the IBM arc system is submerged below sealevel. The IBM arc system lies along the eastern margin of the Philippine Sea Plate in the Western Pacific Ocean. It is the site of the deepest gash in Earth's solid surface, the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench.

Afar Triple Junction Place where three tectonic rifts meet in East Africa

The Afar Triple Junction is located along a divergent plate boundary dividing the Nubian, Somali, and Arabian plates. This area is considered a present-day example of continental rifting leading to seafloor spreading and producing an oceanic basin. Here, the Red Sea Rift meets the Aden Ridge and the East African Rift. It extends a total of 6,500 kilometers (4,000 mi) in three arms from the Afar Triangle to Mozambique.

Aegir Ridge Extinct mid-ocean ridge in the far-northern Atlantic Ocean

The Aegir Ridge is an extinct segment of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the far-northern Atlantic Ocean. It marks the initial break-up boundary between Greenland and Norway, along which seafloor spreading was initiated at the beginning of the Eocene epoch to form the northern Atlantic Ocean. Towards the end of the Eocene, the newly forming Kolbeinsey Ridge propagated northwards from Iceland, splitting the Jan Mayen Microcontinent away from the Greenland Plate. As the Kolbeinsey Ridge formed, so activity on the Aegir Ridge reduced, ceasing completely at the end of the Oligocene epoch when the Kolbeinsey Ridge reached the Jan Mayen Fracture Zone.

Propagating rift Seafloor feature associated with spreading centers at mid-ocean ridges and back-arc basins

A propagating rift is a seafloor feature associated with spreading centers at mid-ocean ridges and back-arc basins. They are more commonly observed on faster rate spreading centers. These features are formed by the lengthening of one spreading segment at the expense of an offset neighboring spreading segment. Hence, these are remnant features produced by migration of the tip of a spreading center. In other words, as the tip of a spreading center migrates or grows, the plate itself grows at the expense of the shrinking plate, transferring lithosphere from the shrinking plate to the growing plate.

Ridge push or sliding plate force is a proposed driving force for plate motion in plate tectonics that occurs at mid-ocean ridges as the result of the rigid lithosphere sliding down the hot, raised asthenosphere below mid-ocean ridges. Although it is called ridge push, the term is somewhat misleading; it is actually a body force that acts throughout an ocean plate, not just at the ridge, as a result of gravitational pull. The name comes from earlier models of plate tectonics in which ridge push was primarily ascribed to upwelling magma at mid-ocean ridges pushing or wedging the plates apart.

The depth of the seafloor on the flanks of a mid-ocean ridge is determined mainly by the age of the oceanic lithosphere; older seafloor is deeper. During seafloor spreading, lithosphere and mantle cooling, contraction, and isostatic adjustment with age cause seafloor deepening. This relationship has come to be better understood since around 1969 with significant updates in 1974 and 1977. Two main theories have been put forward to explain this observation: one where the mantle including the lithosphere is cooling; the cooling mantle model, and a second where a lithosphere plate cools above a mantle at a constant temperature; the cooling plate model. The cooling mantle model explains the age-depth observations for seafloor younger than 80 million years. The cooling plate model explains the age-depth observations best for seafloor older that 20 million years. In addition, the cooling plate model explains the almost constant depth and heat flow observed in very old seafloor and lithosphere. In practice it is convenient to use the solution for the cooling mantle model for an age-depth relationship younger than 20 million years. Older than this the cooling plate model fits data as well. Beyond 80 million years the plate model fits better than the mantle model.

Plate theory (volcanism)

The plate theory is a model of volcanism that attributes all volcanic activity on Earth, even that which appears superficially to be anomalous, to the operation of plate tectonics. According to the plate theory, the principal cause of volcanism is extension of the lithosphere. Extension of the lithosphere is a function of the lithospheric stress field. The global distribution of volcanic activity at a given time reflects the contemporaneous lithospheric stress field, and changes in the spatial and temporal distribution of volcanoes reflect changes in the stress field. The main factors governing the evolution of the stress field are:

  1. Changes in the configuration of plate boundaries.
  2. Vertical motions.
  3. Thermal contraction.

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