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TOPOLOGY OF THE SEA FLOOR
Oceans cover 71 percent of Earth’s surface and hold 97 percent of Earth’s water. The water they contain is critical to plate tectonics, to volcanism, and of course, to life on Earth. It is said that we know more about the surface of the Moon than the floor of the oceans. Whether this is true or not, the critical point is that the ocean floor is covered with an average of nearly 4,000 m of water, and it is pitch black below a few hundred meters, so it is not easy to discover what is down there. We know a lot more about the oceans than we used to, but there is still a great deal more to discover.
Earth has had oceans for a very long time, dating back to the point where the surface had cooled enough to allow liquid water, only a few hundred million years after Earth’s formation. At that time there were no continental rocks, so the water that was here was likely spread out over the surface in one giant (but relatively shallow) ocean.
We examined the topography of the sea floor from the perspective of plate tectonics, but here we are going to take another look at the essential features from an oceanographic perspective. The topography of the northern Atlantic Ocean is shown below. The essential features are the extensive continental shelves less than 250 m deep (pink); the vast deep ocean plains between 4,000 and 6,000 m deep (light and dark blue); the mid-Atlantic ridge, in many areas shallower than 3,000 m; and the deep ocean trench north of Puerto Rico (8,600 m).
A topographic profile of the Pacific Ocean floor between Japan and British Columbia is shown in Figure 18.3. Be careful when interpreting this diagram (and others like it), because in order to show the various features the vertical axis is exaggerated, in this case by about 200 times. The floor of the Pacific, like those of the other oceans, is very flat, even in areas with seamounts or deep trenches. The vast sediment-covered abyssal plains of the oceans are much flatter than any similar-sized areas on the continents.
The main features of the Pacific Ocean floor are the continental slopes, which drop from about 200 m to several thousand meters over a distance of a few hundred kilometers; the abyssal plains – exceedingly flat and from 4,000 m to 6,000 m deep; volcanic seamounts and islands; and trenches at subduction zones that are up to 11,000 m deep.
The ocean floor is almost entirely underlain by mafic oceanic crust, while the continental slopes are underlain by felsic continental crust (mostly granitic and sedimentary rocks). Moreover, the denser oceanic crust floats lower on the mantle than continental crust does, and that is why oceans are oceans.
Although the temperature of the ocean surface varies widely, from a few degrees either side of freezing in polar regions to over 25°C in the tropics, in most parts of the ocean, the water temperature is around 10°C at 1,000 m depth and about 4°C from 2,000 m depth all the way to the bottom.
The deepest parts of the ocean are within the subduction trenches, and the deepest of these is the Marianas Trench in the southwestern Pacific (near Guam) at 11,000 m. Other trenches in the southwestern Pacific are over 10,000 m deep; the Japan Trench is over 9,000 m deep, and the Puerto Rico and Chile-Peru Trenches are over 8,000 m deep. Trenches that are relatively shallow tend to be that way because they have significant sediment infill. There is no recognizable trench along the subduction zone of the Juan de Fuca Plate because it has been filled with sediments from the Fraser and Columbia Rivers (or their ancient equivalents).
Introduction to Physical Geography by R. Adam Dastrup is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.
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