Divergent Plate Boundaries and Sea-Floor Spreading

Divergent Plate Boundaries and Sea-Floor Spreading 

The process of sea-floor spreading.
At a divergent boundary, or spreading boundary, two oceanic plates move apart by the process of sea-floor spreading. Note that an open space does not develop between diverging plates. Rather, as the plates move apart, new oceanic lithosphere forms continually along the divergent boundary (figure above a). This process takes place at a submarine mountain range called a mid-ocean ridge that rises 2 km above the adjacent abyssal plains of the ocean. Thus, geologists commonly refer to a divergent boundary as a mid-ocean ridge, or simply a ridge. Water depth above ridges averages about 2.5  km. 
To characterize a divergent boundary more completely, let’s look at one mid-ocean ridge in more detail (figure above b). The Mid-Atlantic Ridge extends from the waters between northern  Greenland and northern Scandinavia southward across the equator to the latitude of the southern tip of South America. Geologists have found that the formation of new sea floor takes place only along the axis (centerline) of the ridge, which is marked by an elongate valley. The sea floor slopes away, reaching the depth of the abyssal plain (4 to 5 km) at a distance of about 500 to 800 km from the ridge axis. Roughly speaking, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is symmetrical its eastern half looks like a mirror image of its western half. The ridge consists, along its length, of short segments (tens to hundreds of km long) that step over at breaks that, as we noted earlier, are called fracture zones.

How Does Oceanic Crust Form  at a Mid-Ocean Ridge? 

As sea-floor spreading takes place, hot asthenosphere rises beneath the ridge and begins to melt, and molten rock, or magma, forms (figure above c). Magma has a lower density than solid rock, so it behaves buoyantly and rises, as oil rises above vinegar in salad dressing. Molten rock eventually accumulates in the crust below the ridge axis, filling a region called a magma chamber. As the magma cools, it turns into a mush of crystals. Some of the magma solidifies completely along the side of the chamber to make the coarse-grained, mafic igneous rock called gabbro. The rest rises still higher to fill vertical cracks, where it solidifies and forms wall-like sheets, or dikes, of basalt. Some magma rises all the way to the surface of the sea floor at the ridge axis and spills out of small submarine volcanoes. The resulting lava cools to form a layer of basalt blobs called pillows. Observers in research submarines have detected chimneys spewing hot, mineralized water rising from cracks in the sea floor along the ridge axis. These chimneys are called black smokers because the water they emit looks like a cloud of dark smoke; the colour comes from a suspension of tiny mineral grains that precipitate in the water the instant that the water cools (figure below). 

 A column of superhot water gushing from a vent known as a black smoker along the mid-ocean ridge. A local ecosystem of bacteria, shrimp, and worms lives around the vent.
As soon as it forms, new oceanic crust moves away from the ridge axis, and when this happens, more magma rises from below, so still more crust forms. In other words, like a vast, continuously moving conveyor belt, magma from the mantle rises to the Earth’s surface at the ridge, solidifies to form oceanic crust, and then moves laterally away from the ridge. Because all sea floor forms at mid-ocean ridges, the youngest sea floor occurs on either side of the ridge axis, and sea floor becomes progressively older away from the ridge. In the Atlantic Ocean, the oldest sea floor, therefore, lies adjacent to the passive continental margins on either side of the ocean (figure below). The oldest ocean floor on our planet underlies the western Pacific Ocean; this crust formed about 200 million years ago.

This map of the world shows the age of the sea floor. Note how the sea floor grows older with increasing distance from the ridge axis. (Ma = million years ago.)
The tension (stretching force) applied to newly formed solid crust as spreading takes place breaks the crust, resulting in the formation of faults. Slip on the faults causes divergent boundary earthquakes and produces numerous cliffs, or scarps, that lie parallel to the ridge axis.

How Does the Lithospheric Mantle  Form at a Mid-Ocean Ridge? 

So far, we've seen how oceanic crust forms at mid-ocean ridges. How does the mantle part of the oceanic lithosphere form? This part consists of the cooler uppermost layer of the mantle, in which temperatures are less than about 1,280°C. At the ridge axis, such temperatures occur almost at the base of the crust, because of the presence of rising hot asthenosphere and hot magma, so lithospheric mantle beneath the ridge axis effectively doesn’t exist. But as the newly formed oceanic crust moves away from the ridge axis, the crust and the uppermost mantle directly beneath it gradually cool by losing heat to the ocean above. As soon as mantle rock cools below 1,280°C, it becomes, by definition, part of the lithosphere.

Changes accompanying the aging of lithosphere.
As oceanic lithosphere continues to move away from the ridge axis, it continues to cool, so the lithospheric mantle, and therefore the oceanic lithosphere as a whole, grows progressively thicker (figure above a, b). Note that this process doesn’t change the thickness of the oceanic crust, for the crust formed entirely at the ridge axis. The rate at which cooling and lithospheric thickening occur decreases progressively with increasing  distance from the ridge axis. In fact, by the time the lithosphere is about 80 million years old, it has just about reached its maximum thickness. As lithosphere thickens and gets cooler and denser, it sinks down into the asthenosphere, like a ship taking on ballast. Thus, the ocean is deeper over older ocean floor than over younger ocean floor.
Credits: Stephen Marshak (Essentials of Geology)
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