Trenches, Plains, and Ridges

One of the most surprising findings of the early oceanographers was that the deepest parts of the oceans were not in the centers, as they had expected, but were in fact quite close to the margins of continents, particularly in the Pacific Ocean. Further exploration showed that these deeps were located in long V-shaped trenches bordering the seaward edge of volcanic island arcs. These trenches are one of the most striking features of the Pacific floor. Trenches virtually encircle the rim of the Pacific basin. The trenches have lengths of thousands of kilometers, are generally hundreds of kilometers wide, and extend 3 to 4 km (1.9–2.5 mi) deeper than the surrounding ocean floor. The greatest ocean depth has been sounded in the Challenger Deep of the Marianas Trench, a distance of 10,911.5 m (35,798.6 ft) below sea level.

The deep ocean floor begins at the seaward edge of the continental rise or marginal trench, if one is present, and extends seaward to the base of the underwater midocean mountains. Many relief features of great importance are present in this region. Vast abyssal plains cover significant portions of the deep ocean basin. Such plains are occasionally broken by low, oval-shaped abyssal hills. The abyssal plains cover about 30% of the Atlantic and nearly 75% of the Pacific ocean floors. They are among the flattest portions of the earth's crust and appear to be formed by the deposition of fine sediment carried by turbidity currents that have covered and smoothed out irregularities in the ocean floor.

One of the most significant features of the ocean basins is the midocean ridge. First discovered in the Atlantic Ocean on the Challenger expedition, its relief features were further investigated during the German Meteor expedition of 1925–26. By the early 1960s it had been confirmed that the Mid-Atlantic Ridge was only part of a continuous feature that extended 55,000 km (34,000 mi) through the Atlantic, Indian, South Pacific, and Arctic oceans. The ridge is a broad bulge in the ocean floor that rises 1 to 3 km (0.6–2 mi) above the adjacent abyssal plains. It has a variable width averaging more than 1,500 km (c.900 mi). It is crossed by a number of fracture zones (transform faults) and displays a deep rift 37 to 48 km (23–30 mi) wide and about 1.6 km (1 mi) deep at its very crest.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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