Geography Oceanography, and Weather

Plate Tectonics

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.


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