See Inside February 2009

The Origin of the Ocean Floor

The deep basins under the oceans are carpeted with lava that spewed from submarine volcanoes and solidified. Scientists have solved the mystery of how, precisely, all that lava reaches the seafloor

Elliot Lim and Jesse Varner CIRES, University of Colorado at Boulder, and NOAA/National Geophysical Data Center (

At the dark bottom of our cool oceans, 85 percent of the earth's volcanic eruptions proceed virtually unnoticed. Though unseen, they are hardly insignificant. Submarine volcanoes generate the solid underpinnings of all the world's oceans massive slabs of rock seven kilometers thick.

Geophysicists first began to appreciate the smoldering origins of the land under the sea, known formally as ocean crust, in the early 1960s. Sonar surveys revealed that volcanoes form nearly continuous ridges that wind around the globe like seams on a baseball. Later, the same scientists strove to explain what fuels these erupting mountain ranges, called mid-ocean ridges. Basic theories suggest that because ocean crust pulls apart along the ridges, hot material deep within the earth's rocky interior must rise to fill the gap. But details of exactly where the lava originates and how it travels to the surface long remained a mystery.

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