Continental Rise: Definition & Facts

Instructor: Terry Dunn

Terry has a master's degree in environmental communications and has taught in a variety of settings.

If you had to guess, would you think a continental rise is a mountain in the middle of a continent? It's a fair assumption, but not a correct one. Here you will find out what the continental rise is, where they're found, and what creates them.

What is the Continental Rise?

There's a surprising place where perhaps half of the world's sediments are settling. These materials that are broken down by weathering and then carried by rivers and streams aren't always ending up in stream beds, river deltas or flood zones. Instead, many of them are ending up in a place that's not on land at all.

These sediments are drawn to the continental rise underneath the ocean, where enough of them settle that it causes a distinctive mound that surrounds the world's continental edges. Think of it as an elongated hill of sediments deep under the ocean's surface. The continental rise is also part of a larger region called the continental margin.

Continental Margin

Starting from the continental edge, where dry land turns to ocean, the first of three parts of the region called the continental margin, is the shallow, gentle descent of the continental shelf. This area can be as narrow as 15 miles and as wide as 228 miles.

After the continental shelf, you would be in for a bit of a fall. The steep cliff of the continental slope is next. The transition between the continental shelf and the continental slope is called the continental shelf break. It's not really a precise spot, but more like an area where the continental margin shifts from the less steep continental shelf to the much steeper continental slope. The continental slope is far from smooth and instead, is marked by numerous, submarine canyons that run perpendicular to the continental slope.

Diagram of the continental margin
Diagram of the continental margin

Finally, after the continental slope, you would reach the third part of the continental margin…the continental rise. While it's more level than the continental slope, it's not quite as smooth as what follows -- the expansive ocean floor.

How the Continental Rise Forms

There are couple ways all those sediments wind up at the continental rise. A lot of sediments come through the submarine canyons and merge together in mounds to form parts of the rise. But sentiment also gets there from rivers and streams on land that flow to the ocean. The river and stream water is loaded with sediment that eventually settles out in the ocean. Because the continental slope is steep, it's more difficult for them to settle there, so the sediment accumulates at the continental rise instead.

Sediments in the Zambezi River
River sediments

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