Deep ocean trenches, volcanoes, island arcs, submarine mountain ranges, and fault lines are examples of features that can form along plate tectonic boundaries.
The Earth’s outer crust (the lithosphere) is composed of a series of tectonic plates that move on a hot flowing mantle layer called the asthenosphere. Heat within the asthenosphere creates convection currents that cause tectonic plates to move several centimeters per year relative to each other. When two tectonic plates meet, we get a “plate boundary.” There are three major types of plate boundaries, each associated with the formation of a variety of geologic features.
If two tectonic plates collide, they form a convergent plate boundary. Usually, one of the converging plates will move beneath the other, a process known as subduction. Deep trenches are features often formed where tectonic plates are being subducted and earthquakes are common at subduction zones as well. As the sinking plate moves deeper into the mantle, fluids are released from the rock causing the overlying mantle to partially melt. The new magma (molten rock) rises and may erupt violently to form volcanoes, often building arcs of islands along the convergent boundary.
When two plates are moving away from each other, we call this a divergent plate boundary. Along these boundaries, magma rises from deep within the Earth and erupts to form new crust on the lithosphere. Most divergent plate boundaries are underwater and form submarine mountain ranges called oceanic spreading ridges. While the process of forming these mountain ranges is volcanic, volcanoes and earthquakes along oceanic spreading ridges are not as violent as they are at convergent plate boundaries.
The third type of plate boundary occurs where tectonic plates slide horizontally past each other. This is known as a transform plate boundary. As the plates rub against each other, huge stresses can cause portions of the rock to break, resulting in earthquakes. Places where these breaks occur are called faults. A well-known example of a transform plate boundary is the San Andreas Fault in California.
When a divergent boundary occurs beneath a thick continental plate, the pull-apart is not vigorous enough to create a clean, single break through the thick plate material. Here the thick continental plate is arched upwards from the convection currents lift, pulled thin by extensional forces, and fractured into a rift-shaped structure. As the two plates pull apart, normal faults develop on both sides of the rift, and the central blocks slide downwards. Earthquakes occur as a result of this fracturing and movement. Early in the rift-forming process, streams and rivers will flow into the sinking rift valley to form a long linear lake. As the rift grows deeper it might drop below sea level, allowing ocean waters to flow in. This will produce a narrow, shallow sea within the rift. This rift can then grow deeper and wider. If rifting continues, a new ocean basin could be produced. ADVERTISEMENT
The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is a classic example of this type of plate boundary. The Ridge is a high area compared to the surrounding seafloor because of the lift from the convection current below. A frequent misconception is that the Ridge is a build-up of volcanic materials; however, the magma that fills the fissure does not flood extensively over the ocean floor and stack up to form a topographic high. Instead, it fills the fissure and solidifies. When the next eruption occurs, the fissure most likely develops down the center of the cooling magma plug with half of the newly solidified material being attached to the end of each plate.
Divergent plate boundaries are locations where plates are moving away from one another. This occurs above rising convection currents. The rising current pushes up on the bottom of the lithosphere, lifting it and flowing laterally beneath it. This lateral flow causes the plate material above to be dragged along in the direction of flow. At the crest of the uplift, the overlying plate is stretched thin, breaks and pulls apart.
The East Africa Rift Valley is a classic example of this type of plate boundary. The East Africa Rift is in a very early stage of development. The plate has not been completely rifted, and the rift valley is still above sea level but occupied by lakes at several locations. The Red Sea is an example of a more completely developed rift. There the plates have fully separated, and the central rift valley has dropped below sea level.
When a divergent boundary occurs beneath oceanic lithosphere, the rising convection current below lifts the lithosphere, producing a mid-ocean ridge. Extensional forces stretch the lithosphere and produce a deep fissure. When the fissure opens, pressure is reduced on the super-heated mantle material below. It responds by melting, and the new magma flows into the fissure. The magma then solidifies and the process repeats itself. ADVERTISEMENT
The crustal material created at a spreading boundary is always in character; in other words, it is igneous rock (e.g., or gabbro, rich in ferromagnesian minerals), forming from derived from partial melting of the caused by decompression as hot mantle rock from depth is moved toward the surface (Figure 4.5.3). The triangular zone of partial melting near the ridge crest is approximately 60 km thick and the proportion of magma is about 10% of the rock volume, thus producing crust that is about 6 km thick. This magma oozes out onto the seafloor to form pillow basalts, breccias (fragmented basaltic rock), and flows, interbedded in some cases with limestone or chert. Over time, the igneous rock of the oceanic crust gets covered with layers of , which eventually become sedimentary rock.
Spreading is hypothesized to start within a continental area with up-warping or doming of crust related to an underlying or series of mantle plumes. The buoyancy of the mantle plume material creates a dome within the crust, causing it to fracture. When a series of mantle plumes exists beneath a large continent, the resulting rifts may align and lead to the formation of a (such as the present-day Great Rift Valley in eastern Africa). It is suggested that this type of valley eventually develops into a linear sea (such as the present-day Red Sea), and finally into an ocean (such as the Atlantic). It is likely that as many as 20 mantle plumes, many of which still exist, were responsible for the initiation of the rifting of along what is now the mid-Atlantic ridge.
Beginning in the 1950s, scientists started using magnetometer readings when studying ocean floor topography. The first comprehensive magnetic data set was compiled in 1958 for an area off the coast of British Columbia and Washington State. This survey revealed a mysterious pattern of alternating stripes of low and high magnetic intensity in sea-floor rocks (Figure 4.5.7). Subsequent studies elsewhere in the ocean also observed these magnetic anomalies, and most importantly, the fact that the magnetic patterns are symmetrical with respect to ocean ridges. In the 1960s, in what would become known as the Vine-Matthews-Morley (VMM) hypothesis, it was proposed that the patterns associated with ridges were related to the magnetic reversals, and that oceanic crust created from cooling basalt during a normal event would have polarity aligned with the present magnetic field, and thus would produce a positive anomaly (a black stripe on the sea-floor magnetic map), whereas oceanic crust created during a reversed event would have polarity opposite to the present field and thus would produce a negative magnetic anomaly (a white stripe). The widths of the anomalies varied according to the spreading rates characteristic of the different ridges. This process is illustrated in Figure 4.5.8. New crust is formed (panel a) and takes on the existing normal magnetic polarity. Over time, as the plates continue to diverge, the magnetic polarity reverses, and new crust formed at the ridge now takes on the reversed polarity (white stripes in Figure 4.5.8). In panel b, the poles have reverted to normal, so once again the new crust shows normal polarity before moving away from the ridge. Eventually, this creates a series of parallel, alternating bands of reversals, symmetrical around the spreading center (panel c). *”Physical Geology” by Steven Earle used under a CC-BY 4.0 international license. Download this book for free at http://open.bccampus.ca
The oldest oceanic crust is around 280 in the eastern Mediterranean, and the oldest parts of the open ocean are around 180 Ma on either side of the north Atlantic. It may be surprising, considering that parts of the are close to 4,000 Ma old, that the oldest seafloor is less than 300 Ma. Of course, the reason for this is that all seafloor older than that has been either (see section 4.6) or pushed up to become part of the continental crust. As one would expect, the oceanic crust is very young near the spreading ridges (Figure 4.5.4), and there are obvious differences in the rate of sea-floor spreading along different ridges. The ridges in the Pacific and southeastern Indian Oceans have wide age bands, indicating rapid spreading (approaching 10 cm/year on each side in some areas), while those in the Atlantic and western Indian Oceans are spreading much more slowly (less than 2 cm/year on each side in some areas).
are spreading boundaries, where new is created to fill in the space as the plates move apart. Most divergent boundaries are located along mid-ocean oceanic ridges (although some are on land). The system is a giant undersea mountain range, and is the largest geological feature on Earth; at 65,000 km long and about 1000 km wide, it covers 23% of Earth’s surface (Figure 4.5.1). Because the new crust formed at the plate boundary is warmer than the surrounding crust, it has a lower density so it sits higher on the , creating the mountain chain. Running down the middle of the mid-ocean ridge is a 25-50 km wide and 1 km deep. Although oceanic spreading ridges appear to be curved features on Earth’s surface, in fact the ridges are composed of a series of straight-line segments, offset at intervals by faults perpendicular to the ridge, called . These transform faults make the mid-ocean ridge system look like a giant zipper on the seafloor (Figure 4.5.2). As we will see in section 4.7, movements along transform faults between two adjacent ridge segments are responsible for many earthquakes.