The Rheic Ocean was a Paleozoic ocean between the large continent Gondwana to the south and the microcontinents Avalonia and others to the north. It formed during the Cambrian and was destroyed during the Hercynian (European name) and Alleghenian (North American name) orogenies during the Carboniferous.
At the beginning of the Paleozoic Era, about 540 million years ago, most of the continental mass on Earth was clustered around the south pole as the paleocontinent Gondwana. The exception was formed by a number of smaller continents, such as Laurentia and Baltica. The Paleozoic ocean between Gondwana, Laurentia and Baltica is called the Iapetus Ocean. The northern edge of Gondwana had been dominated by the Cadomian orogeny during the Ediacaran period. This orogeny formed a cordillera-type volcanic arc where oceanic crust subducted below Gondwana. When a mid-oceanic ridge subducted under an oblique angle, extensional basins developed along the northern margin of Gondwana. During the late Cambrian to Early Ordovician these extensional basins had evolved a rift running along the northern edge of Gondwana. The rift in its turn evolved into a mid-oceanic ridge that separated small continental fragments such as Avalonia and Carolina from the main Gondwanan land mass.
Avalonia drifted north from Gondwana, the Rheic Ocean grew. The northward movement of Avalonia made the Iapetus Ocean shrink during the Middle Ordovician to Late Silurian. For much of the Late Ordovician, the Rheic Ocean appears to have widened as fast as today's East Pacific Rise (at 17 cm/year). Meanwhile, Avalonia collided with Baltica and Laurentia in the Late Silurian to form Laurussia during the Caledonian orogeny. The Rheic Ocean itself began to close in the Devonian when Gondwana, probably preceded by terranes that had broken off, drifted towards Laurussia. By the Late Devonian, the Rheic Ocean had become a narrow ocean that was then sutured between Gondwana and Laurussia. The ocean closed from east to west, first in what is now central Europe (the Hercynian orogeny), then the northeast of North America (Alleghenian orogeny) and northwest of Africa and finally in the southeast of North America (Ouachita orogeny) and north of South America.
The ocean between Baltica and Laurentia was named for Iapetus, in Greek mythology the father of Atlas, just as the Iapetus Ocean was the predecessor of the Atlantic Ocean. The ocean between Gondwana and Baltica was named the Rheic Ocean after Rhea, sister of Iapetus.
- Scenario from Linnemann et al. (2008)
- Murphy et al. (2006); Linnemann et al. (2007)
- Linnemann, U.; Pereira, F.; Jeffries, T.E.; Drost, K. & Gerdes, A. (2008). "The Cadomian Orogeny and the opening of the Rheic Ocean: The diacrony of geotectonic processes constrained by LA-ICP-MS U–Pb zircon dating (Ossa-Morena and Saxo-Thuringian Zones, Iberian and Bohemian Massifs)". Tectonophysics 461: 21–43. Bibcode:2008Tectp.461...21L. doi:10.1016/j.tecto.2008.05.002.
- Linnemann, U.; Gerdes, A.; Drost, K.; Buschmann, B. (2007). "The continuum between Cadomian Orogenesis and opening of the Rheic Ocean: constraints from LA-ICP-MS U–Pb zircon dating and analysis of plate-tectonic setting (Saxo-Thuringian Zone, NE Bohemian Massif, Germany)". In Linnemann, U.; Nance, D.; Kraft, P.; Zulauf, G. The Evolution of the Rheic Ocean: from Avalonian–Cadomian Active Margin to Alleghenian–Variscan Collision: Geological Society of America Special Paper. 423 pages=61–96.
- Murphy, J.B.; Gutierrez-Alonso, G.; Nance, R.D.; Fernandez-Suarez, J.; Keppie, J.D.; Quesada, C.; Strachan, R.A.; Dostal, J. (2006). "Origin of the Rheic Ocean: Rifting along a Neoproterozoic suture?". Geology 34 (5): 325–328.