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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 in the oceanic crust, and emerges as lava, creating new crust and lithosphere upon cooling. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge 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 called mid-ocean ridges. Mid-ocean ridges around the globe are linked by plate tectonic boundaries and appear 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).
At the spreading center on a mid-ocean ridge the depth of the seafloor is approximately 2,600 meters (8,500 ft). On the ridge flanks 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 or mantle half-space. A good approximation is that the depth of the seafloor at a location on a spreading mid-ocean ridge proportional to the square root of the age of the seafloor. The overall shape of ridges results from Pratt isostacy: close to the ridge axis there is hot, low-density mantle supporting the oceanic crust. As the oceanic plate cools, away from the ridge axis, the oceanic mantle lithosphere (the colder, denser part of the mantle that, together with the crust, comprises the oceanic plates) thickens and the density increases. Thus older seafloor is underlain by denser material and is deeper.
Spreading rates range from approximately 10-200 mm/yr. Slow-spreading ridges such as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge have spread much less far (showing a narrower profile) than faster ridges such as the East Pacific Rise (wider profile) for the same amount of time and cooling and consequent bathymetric deepening. Slow-spreading ridges (less than 40 mm/yr) generally have large rift valleys, sometimes as wide as 10–20 km (6.2–12.4 mi), and very rugged terrain at the ridge crest that can have relief of up to a 1,000 m (3,300 ft). By contrast, fast-spreading ridges (greater than 90 mm/yr) such as the East Pacific Rise lack rift valleys. These have narrow, sharp ridge crests surrounded by generally flat topography that slopes away from the crest over many hundreds of miles.
The spreading center or axis, commonly connects to a transform fault oriented at right angles to the axis. The flanks of mid-ocean ridges are in many places marked by the inactive scars of transform faults called fracture zones. At faster spreading rates the axes often display overlapping spreading centers that lack connecting transform faults. The depth of the axis varies in a systematic way with shallower depths mid-way between offsets such as transform faults and overlapping spreading centers dividing the axis into segments; this is believed due to variations in magma supply to the spreading center. Ultra-slow spreading ridges (less than 2 cm/yr), such as the Southwest India and the Arctic Ridges form both magmatic and amagmatic (currently lack volcanic activity) ridge segments without transform faults.
Mid-ocean ridges exhibit active volcanism and seismicity. The oceanic crust is in a constant state of 'renewal' at the mid-ocean ridges by the processes of seafloor spreading and plate tectonics. New magma steadily emerges onto the ocean floor and intrudes into the existing ocean crust at and near rifts along the ridge axes. The rocks making up the crust below the seafloor are youngest along the axis of the ridge and age with increasing distance from that axis. New magma of basalt composition emerges at and near the axis because of decompression melting in the underlying Earth's mantle. The isentropic upwelling solid mantle material exceeds the solidus temperature and melts. The crystallized magma forms new crust of basalt known as MORB for mid-ocean ridge basalt, and gabbro below it in the lower oceanic crust. Mid-ocean ridge basalt is a tholeiitic basalt and is low in incompatible elements. Hydrothermal vents are a common feature at oceanic spreading centers.
The oceanic crust and lithosphere is made up of rocks much younger than the Earth itself. Most oceanic crust in the ocean basins is less than 200 million years old. As the oceanic crust and lithosphere moves away from the ridge axis, the peridotite in the underlying mantle lithosphere cools and becomes more rigid. The crust and the relatively rigid peridotite below it make up the oceanic lithosphere, which sits above the less rigid and viscous asthenosphere.
Oceanic lithosphere is formed at an oceanic ridge, while the lithosphere is subducted back into the asthenosphere at ocean trenches. Two processes, ridge-push and slab pull, are thought to be responsible for spreading at mid-ocean ridges. Ridge push refers to the gravitation sliding of the ocean plate that is raised above the hotter asthenosphere, thus creating a body force causing sliding of the plate downslope. In slab pull the weight of a tectonic plate being subducted (pulled) below an overlying plate at a subduction zone drags the rest of the plate along behind it. The slab pull mechanism is considered to be contributing more than the ridge push.
The other process proposed to contribute to the formation of new oceanic crust at mid-ocean ridges is the "mantle conveyor" (see image). However, there have been some studies which have shown that the upper mantle (asthenosphere) is too plastic (flexible) to generate enough friction to pull the tectonic plate along. Moreover, unlike in the image above, mantle upwelling that causes magma to form beneath the ocean ridges appears to involve only its upper 400 km (250 mi), as deduced from seismic tomography and from studies of the seismic discontinuity at about 400 km (250 mi). The relatively shallow depths from which the upwelling mantle rises below ridges are more consistent with the "slab-pull" process. On the other hand, some of the world's largest tectonic plates such as the North American Plate are in motion, yet are nowhere being subducted.
The rate at which the mid-ocean ridge creates new material is known as the spreading rate, and is typically measured in mm/yr. 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. The spreading rate of the North Atlantic Ocean is ~ 25 mm/yr, while in the Pacific region, it is 80–120 mm/yr. Ridges that spread at rates <20 mm/yr are referred to as ultraslow spreading ridges (e.g., the Gakkel Ridge in the Arctic Ocean and the Southwest Indian Ridge) and they provide a much different perspective on crustal formation than their faster spreading brethren.
The mid-ocean ridge systems form new oceanic crust. As crystallized basalt extruded at a ridge axis cools below Curie points of appropriate iron-titanium oxides, magnetic field directions parallel to the Earth's magnetic field are recorded in those oxides. The orientations of the field in the oceanic crust preserve a record of directions of the Earth's magnetic field with time. Because the field has reversed directions at irregular intervals throughout its history, the pattern of geomagnetic reversals in the ocean crust can be used as an indicator of age. Likewise, the pattern of reversals together with age measurements of the crust is used to help establish the history of the Earth's magnetic field.
The mid-ocean ridges of the world are connected and form the Ocean Ridge, a single global mid-oceanic ridge system that is part of every ocean, making it the longest mountain range in the world. The continuous mountain range is 65,000 km (40,400 mi) long (several times longer than the Andes, the longest continental mountain range), and the total length of the oceanic ridge system is 80,000 km (49,700 mi) long.
The high sea levels that occurred during the Cretaceous Period (144–65 Ma) can only be attributed to plate tectonics since thermal expansion and the absence of ice sheets by themselves cannot account for the fact that sea levels were 100–170 meters higher than today.
Increased sea-floor spreading means that the hot young crust at the mid-ocean ridge will form at a faster rate than it can be destroyed at subduction zones. The mid-ocean ridge will then expand and form a broader ridge, taking up more space in the ocean basin and causing sea levels to rise.
Sea-level change can be attributed to other factors (thermal expansion, ice melting). Over very long timescales, however, it is the result of changes in the volume of the ocean basins which are, in turn, affected by rates of sea-floor spreading along the mid-ocean ridges.
Impact on seawater chemistry and carbonate deposition
Seafloor spreading on mid-ocean ridges is a global scale ion-exchange system. Hydrothermal vents at spreading centers introduce various amounts of iron, sulfur, manganese, silicon and other elements into the ocean, some of which are recycled into the ocean crust. Helium-3, an isotope that accompanies volcanism from the mantle, is emitted by hydrothermal vents and can be detected in plumes within the ocean.
Fast spreading rates will expand the mid-ocean ridge causing basalt reactions with seawater to happen more rapidly. The magnesium/calcium ratio will be lower because more magnesium ions are being removed from seawater and consumed by the rock, and more calcium ions are being removed from the rock and released to seawater. Hydrothermal activity at ridge crest is efficient in removing magnesium. A lower Mg/Ca ratio favors the precipitation of low-Mg calcite polymorphs of calcium carbonate (calcite seas).
Slow spreading at mid-ocean ridges has the opposite effect and will result in a higher Mg/Ca ratio favoring the precipitation of aragonite and high-Mg calcite polymorphs of calcium carbonate (aragonite seas).
Experiments show that most modern high-Mg calcite organisms would have been low-Mg calcite in past calcite seas, meaning that the Mg/Ca ratio in an organism's skeleton varies with the Mg/Ca ratio of the seawater in which it was grown.
The mineralogy of reef-building and sediment-producing organisms is thus regulated by chemical reactions occurring along the mid-ocean ridge, the rate of which is controlled by the rate of sea-floor spreading.
The first indications that a ridge bisects the Atlantic Ocean basin came from the results of the British Challenger Expedition in the nineteenth century. Soundings from lines dropped to the seafloor were analyzed by oceanographers Matthew Fontaine Maury and Charles Wyville Thomson and revealed a prominent rise in the seafloor that ran down the Atlantic basin from north to south. Sonar echo sounders confirmed this in the early twentieth century.
It was not until after World War II, when the ocean floor was surveyed in more detail, that the full extent of mid-ocean ridges became known. The Vema, a ship of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, traversed the Atlantic Ocean, recording echo sounder data on the depth of the ocean floor. A team led by Marie Tharp and Bruce Heezen concluded that there was an enormous mountain chain with a rift valley at its crest, running up the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Scientists named it the 'Mid-Atlantic Ridge'. Other research showed that the ridge crest was seismically active and fresh lavas were found in the rift valley. In addition, crustal heat flow was higher here than elsewhere in the Atlantic ocean basin.
At first, the ridge was thought to be a feature specific to the Atlantic Ocean. However, as surveys of the ocean floor continued around the world, it was discovered that every ocean contains parts of the mid-ocean ridge system. The German Meteor Expedition traced the mid-ocean ridge from the South Atlantic into the Indian Ocean early in the twentieth century. Although the first-discovered section of the ridge system runs down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, it was found that most mid-ocean ridges are located away from the center of other ocean basins.
Alfred Wegener proposed the theory of continental drift in 1912. He stated: "the Mid-Atlantic Ridge ... zone in which the floor of the Atlantic, as it keeps spreading, is continuously tearing open and making space for fresh, relatively fluid and hot sima [rising] from depth". However, Wegener did not pursue this observation in his later works and his theory was dismissed by geologists because there was no mechanism to explain how continents could plow through ocean crust, and the theory became largely forgotten.
Following the discovery of the worldwide extent of the mid-ocean ridge in the 1950s, geologists faced a new task: explaining how such an enormous geological structure could have formed. In the 1960s, geologists discovered and began to propose mechanisms for seafloor spreading. The discovery of mid-ocean ridges and the process of seafloor spreading allowed for Wegner's theory to be expanded so that it included the movement of oceanic crust as well as the continents. Plate tectonics was a suitable explanation for seafloor spreading, and the acceptance of plate tectonics by the majority of geologists resulted in a major paradigm shift in geological thinking.
It is estimated that 20 volcanic eruptions occur each year along earth's mid-ocean ridges and that every year 2.5 km2 (0.97 sq mi) of new seafloor is formed by this process. With a crustal thickness of 1 to 2 km (0.62 to 1.24 mi), this amounts to about 4 km3 (0.96 cu mi) of new ocean crust formed every year.
Plates in the crust of the earth, according to the plate tectonics theory
Seafloor magnetic striping
List of oceanic ridges
- Aden Ridge – Part of an active oblique rift system in the Gulf of Aden, between Somalia and the Arabian Peninsula
- Cocos Ridge
- Explorer Ridge – A mid-ocean ridge west of British Columbia, Canada
- Gorda Ridge – A tectonic spreading center off the northern coast of California and southern Oregon
- Juan de Fuca Ridge – A divergent plate boundary off the coast of the Pacific Northwest region of North America.
- South American–Antarctic Ridge – Mid-ocean ridge in the South Atlantic between the South American Plate and the Antarctic Plate
- Chile Rise – An oceanic ridge at the tectonic divergent plate boundary between the Nazca and Antarctic plates
- East Pacific Rise – A mid-oceanic ridge at a divergent tectonic plate boundary on the floor of the Pacific Ocean
- East Scotia Ridge
- Gakkel Ridge – A mid-oceanic ridge under the Arctic Ocean between the North American Plate and the Eurasian Plate(Mid-Arctic Ridge)
- Nazca Ridge – A submarine ridge on the Nazca Plate off the west coast of South America
- Pacific-Antarctic Ridge – A divergent tectonic plate boundary located on the seafloor of the South Pacific Ocean, separating the Pacific Plate from the Antarctic Plate
- Central Indian Ridge – A north-south-trending mid-ocean ridge in the western Indian Ocean
- Carlsberg Ridge – The northern section of the Central Indian Ridge between the African Plate and the Indo-Australian Plate
- Southeast Indian Ridge – A mid-ocean ridge in the southern Indian Ocean
- Southwest Indian Ridge – A mid-ocean ridge on the bed of the south-west Indian Ocean and south-east Atlantic Ocean
- Mid-Atlantic Ridge – A divergent tectonic plate boundary that in the North Atlantic separates the Eurasian and North American plates, and in the South Atlantic separates the African and South American plates
List of ancient oceanic ridges
- Aegir Ridge – An extinct mid-ocean ridge in the far-northern Atlantic Ocean
- Alpha Ridge – A major volcanic ridge under the Arctic Ocean
- Kula-Farallon Ridge – An ancient mid-ocean ridge that existed between the Kula and Farallon plates in the Pacific Ocean during the Jurassic period
- Pacific-Farallon Ridge – A spreading ridge during the late Cretaceous that separated the Pacific Plate to the west and the Farallon Plate to the east
- Pacific-Kula Ridge – A mid-ocean ridge between the Pacific and Kula plates in the Pacific Ocean during the Paleogene period
- Phoenix Ridge – An ancient mid-ocean ridge between the Phoenix and Pacific plates
- Afar Triangle – A geological depression caused by the Afar Triple Junction
- Geography of Iceland
- List of oceanic landforms – Links to Wikipedia articles on landforms
- Ocean chemistry
- Petrological Database of the Ocean Floor
- Project FAMOUS - first manned submersible study of the rift valley of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge
- RISE project - discovery of black smokers hydrothermal systems on the East Pacific Rise
- Slab window – A gap that forms in a subducted oceanic plate when a mid-ocean ridge meets with a subduction zone and the ridge is subducted
- Submarine volcano – Underwater vents or fissures in the Earth's surface from which magma can erupt
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