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Seafloor Spreading

Seafloor spreading is the process that creates new oceanic crust. It occurs along ridges in the ocean floor that result from divergent boundaries.An omage of a continental shift underwater. This is what seafloor spreading looks like.

How It Happens

The ocean floor is part of the earth’s crust. Underneath the crust lies the mantle, made up of molten rock called magma.

An illustration of the ocean floor.

Breaks in the earth’s crust allow magma to rise up and spread across the ocean floor

The closer material gets to the earth’s core, the hotter it gets. We know that heat rises. So, when the magma closest to the core heats up, it rises to the top of the mantle. Once it gets there, it starts to cool down. The cooler that it gets, the denser it gets. Once it is dense enough, it sinks again. This cycle creates convection currents in the form of mantle plumes.
 
Convection currents are what cause divergent boundaries. At divergent boundaries, tectonic plates pull away from each other. Magma rises to fill the gap between plates. As more magma fills the gap, it’s pushed onto either side of the boundary. Eventually, it spreads and hardens.
 
This process continues to add new floor to the bottom of the ocean.
 

Ridges

Ridges are underwater mountain ranges formed at divergent boundaries. The magma that rises here piles up the highest near the boundary itself. This creates a slope from the center of the boundary to its edges. Ridges differ in height, narrowness, and steepness. These features depend on the age of the ridge and how fast the magma comes out of it. Still, they’re all made out of igneous rock.
 

What Happens to Older Sea Floor

As magma rises to create new layers, old layers get pushed away. The constant outward movement of old layers makes room for new layers. This is why it’s called sea floor “spreading”. 
 
You might wonder then why our planet’s ocean floor is not infinite. That is because of a process that counteracts seafloor spreading. This process is subduction.
 
Subduction occurs at convergent boundaries, where the plates collide rather than pull apart. When two plates collide, the heavier plate slides underneath the lighter one. This causes it to go into the asthenosphere, where the heat then melts it.

An image of a subduction zone .

Subduction and seafloor spreading work together

Other Great Resources

The Discovery of Seafloor Spreading: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k-_Z6p5cjKg

Subduction: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbDqJy28hBw

Plate Tectonics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RA2-Vc4PIOY

 

Written By: Anna Hylen