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Developing the Theory

Continental drift was hotly debated off and on for decades following Wegener's death before it was largely dismissed as being eccentric, preposterous, and improbable. However, beginning in the 1950s, a wealth of new evidence emerged to revive the debate about Wegener's provocative ideas and their implications. In particular, four major scientific developments spurred the formulation of the plate-tectonics theory: (1) demonstration of the ruggedness and youth of the ocean floor; (2) confirmation of repeated reversals of the Earth magnetic field in the geologic past; (3) emergence of the seafloor-spreading hypothesis and associated recycling of oceanic crust; and (4) precise documentation that the world's earthquake and volcanic activity is concentrated along oceanic trenches and submarine mountain ranges.

Ocean floor mapping

About two thirds of the Earth's surface lies beneath the oceans. Before the 19th century, the depths of the open ocean were largely a matter of speculation, and most people thought that the ocean floor was relatively flat and featureless. However, as early as the 16th century, a few intrepid navigators, by taking soundings with hand lines, found that the open ocean can differ considerably in depth, showing that the ocean floor was not as flat as generally believed. Oceanic exploration during the next centuries dramatically improved our knowledge of the ocean floor. We now know that most of the geologic processes occurring on land are linked, directly or indirectly, to the dynamics of the ocean floor.

"Modern" measurements of ocean depths greatly increased in the 19th century, when deep-sea line soundings (bathymetric surveys) were routinely made in the Atlantic and Caribbean. In 1855, a bathymetric chart published by U.S. Navy Lieutenant Matthew Maury revealed the first evidence of underwater mountains in the central Atlantic (which he called "Middle Ground"). This was later confirmed by survey ships laying the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable. Our picture of the ocean floor greatly sharpened after World War I (1914-18), when echo-sounding devices -- primitive sonar systems -- began to measure ocean depth by recording the time it took for a sound signal (commonly an electrically generated "ping") from the ship to bounce off the ocean floor and return. Time graphs of the returned signals revealed that the ocean floor was much more rugged than previously thought. Such echo-sounding measurements clearly demonstrated the continuity and roughness of the submarine mountain chain in the central Atlantic (later called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge) suggested by the earlier bathymetric measurements.

The Mid-Ocean Ridge

In 1947, seismologists on the U.S. research ship Atlantis found that the sediment layer on the floor of the Atlantic was much thinner than originally thought. Scientists had previously believed that the oceans have existed for at least 4 billion years, so therefore the sediment layer should have been very thick. Why then was there so little accumulation of sedimentary rock and debris on the ocean floor? The answer to this question, which came after further exploration, would prove to be vital to advancing the concept of plate tectonics.

Computer-generated topographic map of the Mid-Ocean Ridge

In the 1950s, oceanic exploration greatly expanded. Data gathered by oceanographic surveys conducted by many nations led to the discovery that a great mountain range on the ocean floor virtually encircled the Earth. Called the global mid-ocean ridge, this immense submarine mountain chain -- more than 50,000 kilometers (km) long and, in places, more than 800 km across -- zig-zags between the continents, winding its way around the globe like the seam on a baseball. Rising an average of about 4,500 meters(m) above the sea floor, the mid-ocean ridge overshadows all the mountains in the United States except for Mount McKinley (Denali) in Alaska (6,194 m). Though hidden beneath the ocean surface, the global mid-ocean ridge system is the most prominent topographic feature on the surface of our planet.

Magnetic striping and polar reversals

Beginning in the 1950s, scientists, using magnetic instruments (magnetometers) adapted from airborne devices developed during World War II to detect submarines, began recognizing odd magnetic variations across the ocean floor. This finding, though unexpected, was not entirely surprising because it was known that basalt -- the iron-rich, volcanic rock making up the ocean floor-- contains a strongly magnetic mineral (magnetite) and can locally distort compass readings. This distortion was recognized by Icelandic mariners as early as the late 18th century. More important, because the presence of magnetite gives the basalt measurable magnetic properties, these newly discovered magnetic variations provided another means to study the deep ocean floor.

A theoretical model of the formation of magnetic striping. New oceanic crust forming continuously at the crest of the mid-ocean ridge cools and becomes increasingly older as it moves away from the ridge crest with seafloor spreading (see text): a. the spreading ridge about 5 million years ago; b. about 2 to 3 million years ago; and c. present-day.
Early in the 20th century, paleomagnetists (those who study the Earth's ancient magnetic field) -- such as Bernard Brunhes in France (in 1906) and Motonari Matuyama in Japan (in the 1920s) -- recognized that rocks generally belong to two groups according to their magnetic properties. One group has so-called normal polarity, characterized by the magnetic minerals in the rock having the same polarity as that of the Earth's present magnetic field. This would result in the north end of the rock's "compass needle" pointing toward magnetic north. The other group, however, has reversed polarity, indicated by a polarity alignment opposite to that of the Earth's present magnetic field. In this case, the north end of the rock's compass needle would point south. How could this be? This answer lies in the magnetite in volcanic rock. Grains of magnetite -- behaving like little magnets -- can align themselves with the orientation of the Earth's magnetic field. When magma (molten rock containing minerals and gases) cools to form solid volcanic rock, the alignment of the magnetite grains is "locked in," recording the Earth's magnetic orientation or polarity (normal or reversed) at the time of cooling.

Magnetic striping in the Pacific Northwest

As more and more of the seafloor was mapped during the 1950s, the magnetic variations turned out not to be random or isolated occurrences, but instead revealed recognizable patterns. When these magnetic patterns were mapped over a wide region, the ocean floor showed a zebra-like pattern. Alternating stripes of magnetically different rock were laid out in rows on either side of the mid-ocean ridge: one stripe with normal polarity and the adjoining stripe with reversed polarity. The overall pattern, defined by these alternating bands of normally and reversely polarized rock, became known as magnetic striping.

Seafloor spreading and recycling of oceanic crust

The discovery of magnetic striping naturally prompted more questions: How does the magnetic striping pattern form? And why are the stripes symmetrical around the crests of the mid-ocean ridges? These questions could not be answered without also knowing the significance of these ridges. In 1961, scientists began to theorize that mid-ocean ridges mark structurally weak zones where the ocean floor was being ripped in two lengthwise along the ridge crest. New magma from deep within the Earth rises easily through these weak zones and eventually erupts along the crest of the ridges to create new oceanic crust. This process, later called seafloor spreading, operating over many millions of years has built the 50,000 km-long system of mid-ocean ridges. This hypothesis was supported by several lines of evidence: (1) at or near the crest of the ridge, the rocks are very young, and they become progressively older away from the ridge crest; (2) the youngest rocks at the ridge crest always have present-day (normal) polarity; and (3) stripes of rock parallel to the ridge crest alternated in magnetic polarity (normal-reversed-normal, etc.), suggesting that the Earth's magnetic field has flip-flopped many times. By explaining both the zebralike magnetic striping and the construction of the mid-ocean ridge system, the seafloor spreading hypothesis quickly gained converts and represented another major advance in the development of the plate-tectonics theory. Furthermore, the oceanic crust now came to be appreciated as a natural "tape recording" of the history of the reversals in the Earth's magnetic field.

Additional evidence of seafloor spreading came from an unexpected source: petroleum exploration. In the years following World War II, continental oil reserves were being depleted rapidly and the search for offshore oil was on. To conduct offshore exploration, oil companies built ships equipped with a special drilling rig and the capacity to carry many kilometers of drill pipe. This basic idea later was adapted in constructing a research vessel, named the Glomar Challenger, designed specifically for marine geology studies, including the collection of drill-core samples from the deep ocean floor. In 1968, the vessel embarked on a year-long scientific expedition, criss-crossing the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between South America and Africa and drilling core samples at specific locations. When the ages of the samples were determined by paleontologic and isotopic dating studies, they provided the clinching evidence that proved the seafloor spreading hypothesis.

Glomar Challenger and JOIDES Resolution

A profound consequence of seafloor spreading is that new crust was, and is now, being continually created along the oceanic ridges. This idea found great favor with some scientists who claimed that the shifting of the continents can be simply explained by a large increase in size of the Earth since its formation. However, this so-called "expanding Earth" hypothesis was unsatisfactory because its supporters could offer no convincing geologic mechanism to produce such a huge, sudden expansion. Most geologists believe that the Earth has changed little, if at all, in size since its formation 4.6 billion years ago, raising a key question: how can new crust be continuously added along the oceanic ridges without increasing the size of the Earth?

This question particularly intrigued Harry H. Hess, a Princeton University geologist and a Naval Reserve Rear Admiral, and Robert S. Dietz, a scientist with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey who first coined the term seafloor spreading. Dietz and Hess were among the small handful who really understood the broad implications of sea floor spreading. If the Earth's crust was expanding along the oceanic ridges, Hess reasoned, it must be shrinking elsewhere. He suggested that new oceanic crust continuously spread away from the ridges in a conveyor belt-like motion. Many millions of years later, the oceanic crust eventually descends into the oceanic trenches -- very deep, narrow canyons along the rim of the Pacific Ocean basin. According to Hess, the Atlantic Ocean was expanding while the Pacific Ocean was shrinking. As old oceanic crust was consumed in the trenches, new magma rose and erupted along the spreading ridges to form new crust. In effect, the ocean basins were perpetually being "recycled," with the creation of new crust and the destruction of old oceanic lithosphere occurring simultaneously. Thus, Hess' ideas neatly explained why the Earth does not get bigger with sea floor spreading, why there is so little sediment accumulation on the ocean floor, and why oceanic rocks are much younger than continental rocks.

Concentration of earthquakes

During the 20th century, improvements in seismic instrumentation and greater use of earthquake-recording instruments (seismographs) worldwide enabled scientists to learn that earthquakes tend to be concentrated in certain areas, most notably along the oceanic trenches and spreading ridges. By the late 1920s, seismologists were beginning to identify several prominent earthquake zones parallel to the trenches that typically were inclined 40-60° from the horizontal and extended several hundred kilometers into the Earth. These zones later became known as Wadati-Benioff zones, or simply Benioff zones, in honor of the seismologists who first recognized them, Kiyoo Wadati of Japan and Hugo Benioff of the United States. The study of global seismicity greatly advanced in the 1960s with the establishment of the Worldwide Standardized Seismograph Network (WWSSN) to monitor the compliance of the 1963 treaty banning above-ground testing of nuclear weapons. The much-improved data from the WWSSN instruments allowed seismologists to map precisely the zones of earthquake concentration worldwide.

Earthquake Zones

But what was the significance of the connection between earthquakes and oceanic trenches and ridges? The recognition of such a connection helped confirm the seafloor-spreading hypothesis by pin-pointing the zones where Hess had predicted oceanic crust is being generated (along the ridges) and the zones where oceanic lithosphere sinks back into the mantle (beneath the trenches).