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Lecture 5: CONTINENTAL DRIFT & SEA-FLOOR SPREADING

Powerpoint Slides

Plate Tectonics -- brief introduction

Scientific "revolutions": Plate Tectonics as an example
1. "Normal Science": At the start, a collection of theories and observations that are accepted
Geology 100 years ago: Theories were developed to explain the earth's features
The idea that the continents move was not really considered- not really "needed"
 
2. "Crisis": These theories are unable to explain new observations
Unexpected geological discoveries in the 20th century
 
3. "Revolution": New paradigm adopted, old theories eventually given up
New paradigm- plate tectonics- explains many, many aspects of the earth

In the end, a scientific revolution greatly advances science by developing a new, more accurate model with which to understand nature.

Continental Drift

Basic concept (Alfred Wegener)
Single supercontinent, "Pangea" ~250 m.y. ago
Slow "drifting" to present position
Evidence
Fit of continents
Distribution of rocks and mountains
Paleo-climates
Fossils
Acceptance?

Sea-Floor Spreading (Harry Hess, l962)

New oceanic crust is created at mid-ocean ridges and "spreads" away
Old oceanic crust is destroyed by sinking into mantle at trenches
Convection currents in mantle drives the process
 
End of brief notes.
 

Detailed notes start here:

Scientific "revolutions": Plate Tectonics as an example

1. "Normal Science": At the start, a collection of theories and observations that are accepted; new data are fit into those theories by expanding the theories incrementally
Geology 100 years ago: Theories were developed to answer questions such as:
Why are ocean fossils found near the top of Mt. Everest and in many mountain ranges?
Why are mountain chains found where they are?
Why are volcanoes found only in certain zones of the world?
The idea that the continents move was not really considered- not really "needed"
 
2. "Crisis": These theories are unable to explain new observations
Unexpected geological discoveries in the 20th century
New data, much of it from the oceans
Many attempts made to fit these data into existing theories, i.e., to continue doing "normal science"
 
3. "Revolution": New paradigm adopted, old theories eventually given up
New paradigm- plate tectonics- explains many, many aspects of the earth
Completely new way of looking at the earth- hard for many to accept
Old theories given up- but not without careful weighing of the competing theories
Healthy skepticism is the rule in science
Eventually, the evidence FOR plate tectonics became overwhelming
 
Note: Technology had advanced enough to put a person on the moon by 1968, and yet the most basic principle describing how the earth works was just gaining acceptance! This is partly because much of the evidence was hidden in the ocean depths, which were not explored until the mid-1900's.
 
For more information on scientific revolutions, see:
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas S. Kuhn
The Road to Jaramillo, by William Glen


Continental drift, sea-floor spreading and plate tectonics

In the1960s, a revolutionary concept was proposed by marine geologists at Columbia University - the theory of plate tectonics. Prior to that theory, many geological phenomena were simply not explained -Why do earthquakes and volcanoes occur where they do? How are mountain ranges formed? Why do the continents on either side of the Atlantic appear to fit together? Why are there mid-ocean ridges and marginal trenches on the sea-floor? Plate tectonics is able to explain these, and many other features of our planet.


Plate tectonics proposes the following:

Plate tectonics was developed from two previous notions about global processes:

To understand and appreciate the significance of plate tectonics, we begin with those concepts which led to its development.


Continental Drift: Alfred Wegener (German meteorologist) developed the concept of continental drift in the early 20th Century (although the idea had been around for centuries before-hand)

Tasa, Plate Tectonics CD-ROM, Chap. 2, Advance through all frames

Continents were assembled in a single landmass ("Pangea") about 250 m.y. ago.
With time they have slowly moved to their present positions.
The idea was well thought out and based on the following data:

Evidence for Continental Drift

1. Fit of the continents across the Atlantic Ocean

Tasa Plate Tectonics Chap. 3, Frames 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Atlantic coastlines fit together like a jig-saw puzzle. But if the pieces fit, the "pattern" must match also. Wegener explored whether geologic features also matched-up in his reconstruction.
Tasa -- PT Chapter 5 (Rocks...) Frames 1 & 2

2. Distribution of mountains and rock sequences

Tasa Plate Tectonics Chapter 5 (Rocks...) Frames 3 to end

Appalachian Mts. and similar ranges in Scotland and Norway connect up when continents are reconstructed. Distinctive types of rocks and patterns of folds on Africa and S. America match up well for a reconstructed Pangea.

3. Distribution of sedimentary rocks reflecting paleoclimate

Tasa Plate TectonicsChap. 6 (Paleoclimates) Frames 1 to end

Rocks deposited at the Earth's surface (sedimentary rocks) reflect the climate (and hence latitude) where they form. For example, ancient coral reefs and coal swamps form in warm, humid, low latitudes. Glacial deposits should form at cold, high latitudes. Wegener found evidence for glaciated regions widely scattered in the Southern Hemisphere, and for coal deposits. His reassembled continents explains the paleoclimatic record in those sedimentary rocks.

4. Distribution of fossils:

Tasa Plate Tectonics Chapter 4

A number of identical fossil organisms are found on widely separated continents.

o Cynognathus - land reptile (couldn't swim at all) in S. Amer. & Africa
o Mesosaurus - fresh water reptile (couldn't swim far and not in salt water) in S. Amer. & southern Africa
o Lystrosaurus - fat land reptile (would sink faster than a lead ship) in Africa, India, Antarctica
o Glossopteris - fern with heavy seeds (couldn't be blown across the ocean)

The distribution of those organisms only makes sense for a reconstructed Pangea

Wegener believed that the evidence for continental drift was overwhelming. But the idea was not accepted at the time. It was ridiculed. The reasons were:

  1. Wegener didn't have a reasonable mechanism for movement of the continents.
    He suggested that attractive forces of the moon caused continents to crash through the oceans (like a ship breaking through ice). Therefore, ocean crust should be deformed, but it isn't.
  2. Wegener's geological evidence was derived mostly from observations located in the Southern Hemisphere.
    North American geologists were unfamiliar with the observations so they discounted them. Prejudice based on ignorance (scientists are human).

Therefore most scientists rejected the idea of continental drift at the time. But that idea was resurrected when detailed information about the sea floor was gathered and analyzed in the 1950's and l960's. This work lead to the concept of sea-floor spreading.


Sea-Floor Spreading was proposed by Harry Hess (Princeton geologist) in 1962 based on his observations of sea-floor topography. The basic components of the concept are:

New ocean crust is created at mid-oceanic ridges, moves laterally ("spreads") away from ridges with the motion like that of a conveyer belt, and is destroyed at trenches, where it sinks into the mantle and melts. Hess suggested that convection currents in the mantle were the driving force of sea-floor spreading.

During the l960's, a number of research projects were done to test this new hypothesis. Many of these dealt with properties of the sea floor. As we shall see, these studies confirmed the concept of sea-floor spreading.


Study and Review Questions


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