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Ocean Drilling as Evidence for Plate Tectonics

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  • 0:07 Plate Tectonics
  • 0:49 Deep Sea Drilling Project
  • 1:23 Mid-Atlantic Ridge &…
  • 2:28 Ocean Drilling Samples
  • 3:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rebecca Gillaspy

Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.

The Deep Sea Drilling Project extracted samples of the ocean floor that provided evidence to support the hypothesis of seafloor spreading and the theory of plate tectonics. Learn how these samples provided proof.

Plate Tectonics

Some of the most classic stories in history are about journeys at sea. From Homer's Odyssey to Gilligan's Island, it seems that we can't get enough of them. The story of plate tectonics is no different.

Plate tectonics is the theory that the earth's crust is broken up into plates. And these plates, which go by the name 'tectonic plates,' float around on the hotter and more fluid layer of the earth below them. As these plates move, they might push together, pull apart or slide past each other. In this lesson, we will look at the evidence in support of the plate tectonics theory that was uncovered through analysis of samples drilled from the ocean floor.

Deep Sea Drilling Project

Our tale begins in the 1960s. That's the decade that introduced the Deep Sea Drilling Project (DSDP), which was an ocean drilling project designed to analyze the ocean floor. The task was to drill down into the ocean floor and extract samples of the ocean sediments and underlying oceanic crust. This task was accomplished aboard a ship called the Glomar Challenger. This was a research vessel equipped with a drilling platform that traveled across the Atlantic Ocean drilling core samples into the sea floor along the way.

Mid-Atlantic Ridge and Seafloor Spreading

Now, an important feature found on the Atlantic Ocean basin is the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which is an underwater mountain range that runs from Iceland to Antarctica. This ridge system was an important area to drill because at the time it was not fully understood how this large underwater ridge had formed.

It had been theorized that the creation of the oceanic ridge system was caused by seafloor spreading, which states that new oceanic crust is constantly being formed due to the upwelling of magma through diverging tectonic plates. However, this was a lot for some scientists to believe. The scientific community was perplexed over the idea that the Mid-Atlantic Ridge may actually be a tectonic plate boundary that was separating and allowing magma from deep within the earth to ooze up through the crack and that this magma then cooled and was responsible for creating the new layers of oceanic crust that spread out from that area. You can imagine that this whole idea sounded pretty far-fetched to many scientists.

Ocean Drilling Samples

Yet, when samples were taken from this ridge system, they showed two important things. First, the rocks found at or near the seam or crest of the ridge were very young, and they got older farther away from the crest. Second, there were very thin layers of sediment found near the ridge crest, but the sediment thickness increased in samples taken farther distances from the crest, as if those areas had been there longer and had time to collect dust.

This showed that new oceanic crust was being formed along the plate boundary and then spreading out laterally, just like the seafloor spreading theory proposed. And if that were true, then it also provided strong evidence that the earth's crust was made up of moving tectonic plates, giving credence to the theory of plate tectonics.

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