What is continentality?

Areas of a continent that are distant from an ocean (such as the central United States) experience greater extremes in temperature than do places that are closer to an ocean. These inland areas experience continentality. It might be very hot during the summer, but it can also get very cold in winter. Areas close to oceans experience moderating effects from the ocean that reduce the range in temperatures.

What is seafloor spreading?

Seafloor spreading is one of the processes that helps move the lithospheric plates around the world. The process is slow but continuous: Like a hot, bubbling stew on the stove, the even hotter asthenospheric mantle rises to the surface and spreads laterally, transporting oceans and continents as if they were on a slow conveyor belt. This area is usually called a mid-ocean ridge, such as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge system in the Atlantic Ocean.

The newly created lithosphere eventually cools as it gets farther from the spreading center. (This is why the oceanic lithosphere is youngest at the mid-ocean ridges and gets progressively older farther away.) As it cools, it becomes more dense. Because of this, it rides lower in the underlying asthenosphere, which is why the oceans are deepest away from the spreading centers and more shallow at the mid-ocean ridges. After thousands to millions of years, the cooled area reaches another plate boundary, either subducting, colliding, or rubbing past another plate. If part of the plate subducts, it will eventually be heated and recycled back into the mantle, rising again in millions of years at another or the same spreading center.

How was seafloor spreading discovered?

In the 1950s, scientists realized that as igneous rocks cool and solidify (crystallize), magnetic minerals align with the Earth's magnetic field like tiny compass needles, essentially locking the magnetic field into the rock. In other words, rocks with magnetic minerals act like fossils of the magnetic field, allowing scientists to "read" the rock and determine the magnetic field from the geologic past. This is called paleomagnetism.

The idea was proposed by Harry Hess (1906-1969), a Princeton University geologist and U.S. Naval Reserve rear admiral, and independently by Robert Deitz, a scientist with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, both of whom published similar theories that became known as seafloor spreading. In 1962, Hess proposed the idea of seafloor spreading, but had no proof. As Hess formulated his hypothesis, Dietz independently proposed a similar model, which differed by noting the sliding surface was at the base of the lithosphere, not at the base of the crust.

Support for Hess's and Dietz's theories came only one year later: British geologists Frederick Vine and Drummond Matthews discovered the periodic magnetic reversals in the Earth's crust. Taking data from around mid-ocean ridges (seafloor spreading areas), Vine noted the magnetic fields of magnetic minerals showed reversed polarity. (The Earth's magnetic field has reversed its polarity around 170 times in the last 80 million years.) From the spreading center outward, there was a pattern of alternating magnetic polarity on the ocean floor—swaths of opposing polarity on each side of the ridge. As the spreading center continues to grow, new swaths develop, pushing away material on either side of the ridge. Thus, these strips of magnetism were used as evidence of lithospheric plate movement and of seafloor spreading.

How fast does the seafloor spread?

Today, the rates of seafloor spreading vary from about 1 inch (2.54 centimeters) per year in the mid-Atlantic ridge area to about 6 inches (15 centimeters) in the mid-Pacific Ocean. Scientists believe seafloor spreading rates have varied over time. For example, during the Cretaceous Period (between 146 to 65 million years ago) seafloor spreading was extremely rapid. Some researchers believe this quick movement of the lithospheric plates may have also contributed to the demise of the dinosaurs: As the continents changed places over time, so did the climate. In addition, more plate movements might have meant more volcanic activity, releasing dust, ash, and gases into the upper atmosphere and contributing to more climate variation. This change in climate and vegetation may have cause several species of dinosaurs to die out or become diseased, contributing to the dinosaurs' extinction.

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