History of seafloor exploration

Studying the depths of the sea

In this case study...

We explore the history of the exploration of the seafloor, as a quest to understand the nature of the continents

A historical case study by: Simon Wiebe




Prologue: Simple Beginnings


The Story Begins: An Audible Upgrade


Peeling Back the Layers


Another Approach




HMS Challenger

It has often been said that studying the depths of the sea is like hovering in a balloon high above an unknown land which is hidden by clouds, for it is a peculiarity of oceanic research that direct observations of the abyss are impracticable. Instead of the complete picture which vision gives, we have to rely upon a patiently put together mosaic representation of the discoveries made from time to time by sinking instruments and appliances into the deep

Murray & Hjort

Prologue: Simple Beginnings

In 1872, the H.M.S Challenger began its five-year journey that would stretch across every ocean on the planet but the Arctic. Challenger was funded for a single reason; to examine the mysterious workings of the ocean below its surface, previously unexplored. Under steam power, it travelled over 100,000 km and compiled 50 volumes of data and observations on water depth, temperature and conditions, as well as collecting samples of the seafloor, water, and organisms. The devices used to collect this data, while primitive by today’s standards and somewhat imprecise, were effective at giving humanity its first in-depth look into the inner workings of the ocean. By lowering a measured rope attached to a 200 kg weight off the edge of the ship, scientists estimated the depth of the ocean. A single reading could take up to 80 minutes for the weight to reach bottom. Taking a depth measurement also necessitated that the Challenger stop moving, and accurate mapping required a precise knowledge of where the ship was in the world, using navigational tools such as sextants.


Simple mercury thermometers were used on the ship to take temperature readings of the air and of surface water, but scientists faced a hurdle when trying to take a reading underwater. Tying a thermometer to the depth sounding rope seemed like a straightforward way of taking a reading at depth, but how could you take a reading and prevent it from changing on the journey up to the ship?

THINK [1]: Imagine you are a scientist aboard the Challenger. How might you tackle this problem? Design an experiment that could eliminate or reduce this problem.

The special thermometer which was invented to solve this problem utilised a U-shaped glass tube with tiny steel rods that marked the highest and lowest temperatures measured. The design, while ground-breaking, was imprecise, complex, and difficult to use. It also required the user to assume that the lowest temperature was encountered at the lowest depth.

THINK [2]: As a scientist on the Challenger, how reasonable is this assumption to make given how little you know about the depths of the ocean?

Other scientists would wrap the thermometer in an insulating material, such as wool and oiled cloth and leave it in the water at depth until they were reasonably certain it had time to get an accurate reading. Then, they would haul it upwards as fast as possible to minimize the effects of the shallower waters on the thermometer.

The expedition resulted in a deeper understanding of the earth, with thousands of new species of organisms being encountered as well as the discovery of the Mariana trench, the deepest trench in the world. About 400 depth soundings gave mankind an unprecedented glimpse at the topography of the oceans, but still, the Challenger barely scratched the surface. These depth sounds were often clustered close to shore, and still little was known about the seafloor in the open ocean.


Scientists found that the data from the Challenger expedition and others happening in this timeframe displayed certain trends. One such trend, discovered by soundings taken in the Gulf Stream, is the tendency for the seafloor to take a certain shape relatively near the coastline. The continental shelf is the area near the coast with a shallow slope towards the ocean, followed by the continental slope, the area where the slope steepens. The continental slope begins at various distances from shore, ranging from meters to hundreds of kilometer offshore but is a constant, unexplained phenomena of the ocean floor.

THINK [3]: How would one go about creating a chart showing oceanic depth from a limited number of data points (eg figure 5a and 5b)? How reliable would you consider the resulting depth chart?


The Story Begins: An Audible Upgrade

After the RSS Titanic strikes an iceberg in 1912, Reginald Fessenden, an inventor, develops a sort of underwater loudspeaker, designed to detect icebergs at a distance and to transmit Morse code warning ships of potential hazards. By sending out an acoustic signal from the loudspeaker, a sound wave travels through the water at a speed of 1500 meters per second. Upon hitting an obstacle, the wave rebounds off of the obstacle like an echo in a cave, and can then be detected by his device. Then, he can use the time difference between the sound wave’s origin and its reception to calculate the distance to the obstacle. Fessenden built the device, calling it the “Fessenden Oscillator”. Upon testing his device, he not only succeeds in identifying an iceberg about three km away, but also is able to detect another signal, which he later suggests may be the reflection from the bottom of the ocean. It certainly has its drawbacks however, as while it is able to identify an object at least 3km away, it is not able to say in which direction it could be found. Shipping companies are largely uninterested in the device however, and Fessenden moves on to other projects.

            World War I starts in 1914, and paves the way for the use of submarines in naval combat. Submarines of the day use diesel engines on the surface to charge batteries for relatively short stretches underwater. Nevertheless, the threat of attack from these unseen assailants leads to a search for a method to accurately locate them when submerged. Military scientists on both sides of the war, looking for a solution to this problem, look back to the Fessenden Oscillator and the idea of using acoustics to locate enemy submarines. Hydrophones, (microphones designed for underwater use) have already been used to help locate nearby submarines, but were unreliable due to the amount of noise interference in the water. Everything from a boat’s own propeller to the sounds of a distant whale sends sound waves through the water, often thousands of kilometers. As well, knowledge about how sound waves travel in water is poorly understood. A concerted effort from French, British and American researchers results in the mounting of the first practical acoustic locating devices on submarines and naval vessels in 1922. These devices consist simply of a sound source and a hydrophone array designed specifically to listen to the wave emitted by the array, and to locate the direction from which it came.

The very same year, a profile of the sea floor made by a U.S. navy ship travelling from Boston to Gibraltar is published in the first issue of the International Hydrographic Review. Rather than simply spot-checking the ocean depth with a weight as the Challenger did, this profile consists of over 900 measurements taken regularly over the course of the journey, resulting in a continuous line of measurements stretching across the entire ocean. German scientists soon develop their own, very similar version of the acoustic locater and quickly put the technology to work. This results in countries from both sides of the Atlantic sending vessels out on the open ocean with acoustic sounding technology, competing to be the first to develop an accurate map of the ocean.

Atlantic profile

Peeling Back the Layers

The year is now 1925, and a physics student named Maurice Ewing (1906-1974) is working with an oil exploration team in Texas. They are using a method of exploring the subsurface that involves detonating an explosive charge at the surface and measuring the time delay between detonation and the reception by an instrument that measures vibrations, often called seismographs or geophones, positioned a certain distance away. As these waves encounter new layers of rock under the surface, they can reflect or refract, and by using multiple sensors they can start to understand the structure of the subsurface. By analyzing and interpreting the paths of these seismic waves, they can predict where certain rock layers start and end. This information allows them to predict where oil and gas may have accumulated below the surface, and identify potential drilling targets.

Seismic receiver

Ewing writes his first research paper after walking home from the library in Rice University at night with a friend. They notice circular, rainbow coloured bands reflecting off of the dew on the grass, and Maurice asks his friend to shuffle his feet along the bands so he can observe the effects. These notes on the bands and position of the moon eventually make their way into his paper titled “Dewbows by Moonlight”, which are later published in the journal Science in 1926, the year of his graduation.

The next five years he spends in graduate studies at Rice Institute, where Maurice, drawing upon experience working for oil companies in the summer, studies seismic refraction. His thesis, titled “Calculation of Ray Paths from Seismic Travel-Time Curves” helps to quantify the paths these waves take in rock. Ewing later earns his Ph.D. and starts working as a professor at Lehigh University in Philadelphia. In the depths of the great depression scientific funding is scarce, so Ewing implements a few makeshift experiments.

For instance, he learns that a few seismographs placed near a quarry during blasting is an effective way of exploring the nearby subsurface with very little money. Small projects such as these only seemed to whet his appetite for research however, and he yearns for an opportunity to apply himself to a challenging project.

In 1934, representatives from Princeton and the American Geophysical Union walk into Ewing’s office at Lehigh University with a task in mind. As Maurice later writes, “They said they wanted to interest me in the study of the continental shelf… They thought it was a very important geological problem to see if the steep place where the shelf ends was a geological fault or the result of outbuilding of sediment from the land--was it a basic geologic feature or a superficial appearance?” In particular, they are curious about the prospect of using seismology to explore the ocean floor and examine the continental shelf. Ewing is a world renowned expert in seismic exploration, making him the perfect candidate for developing a method of performing seismic experiments at the bottom of the ocean. While this task has never been done before, Ewing, desperate for a chance to prove himself further in the field, is confident that it can be applied, given the right equipment and ships.

And so, after submitting a proposal and receiving his grant, Ewing and his two graduate students Albert Crary and H. M. Rutherford set out on a two week voyage on the Atlantis, a ship built and operated by the Woods Hole Geographic Institute. Equipped with two hundred pounds of TNT and blasting gelatin and numerous instruments such as hydrophones to pick up the sound waves traveling through the water, they set out off of the Virginian Coast.

seismic receiver

The method the trio use to obtain the data is similar to the technique used on land, but with an added layer of complexity coming with the kilometers of water between them and the ocean floor. After anchoring the ship, seismographs are lowered to the seafloor directly below, and Crary sets out in a whaleboat with a few sailors, a pile of blasting gelatin, and a radio. He sails up to eight miles out from the ship and drops charges to be detonated by electrical cable. After allowing enough time for the charge to reach bottom and moving out of the way, Crary detonates and move to the next site, working his way back to the ship. This method is time consuming and inefficient, but results in the first empirical dataset ever collected about the bedrock at the ocean floor. What they discover is a layer of sediment thickening the further they go out to sea, to a maximum of over 3.5km, accompanied by a layer of bedrock gradually sloping downwards.

Cross section

Ewing is often described as an intense man, who lives “a Spartan life of hard work and dedication; a career driven by an intense need to explore; and a certain attitude of not giving in to the idea that you couldn’t go someplace or do something, in the quest for clues to understand the earth” said Arnold Gordon, an Earth Science Professor at Columbia. He is often reluctant to make interpretations of his work or others’, preferring to purely report the facts. There are certainly exceptions to this however. There is hot debate during this time between the relatively new idea of continental drift, which challenged the orthodoxy that the continents have always been in their present positions.

Earlier, in 1912, a German Meteorologist named Alfred Wegener made a stir in the field of Geology when he published a book full of evidence he collected to support his belief that the 7 continents had not always been where they are today. He called this theory “continental displacement”, and it later became known as continental drift. He suggested that the continents were similar to icebreakers; great ships of rock that tear slowly through the ocean floor over vast amounts of time. He used multiple pieces of evidence to back his claim. He first got the idea for the theory from looking at a globe, and noticing how South America seems the perfect shape to nestle closely into west coast of Africa. In addition to this “jigsaw puzzle fit”, it was well known that some fossil species can be found on many different continents, even ones separated by vast oceans. For instance, the ancient fern Glossopteris can be found on the continents of South America, Australia, Africa, and Antarctica, as well as isolated countries such as Madagascar. He explained these phenomena by suggesting that, about 300 million years ago, the continents were all attached to one another, forming one supercontinent he then named “Pangaea” (Greek for “all land”). Supporters of this theory were referred to as “mobilists”.

This controversial idea opposed the long standing theory of Global Contraction. This theory proposed that the Earth started its existence as an enormous sphere of molten rock. As the rock cooled, it started to solidify and contract. This contraction caused the rocks on the surface to be pushed closer and closer together, forming great mountain ranges and ocean basins. Imagine an inflated balloon covered in a wet paper towel. As air is let out of the balloon, it loses volume, but the paper towel does not, and accommodates this by wrinkling. This is the basis behind the contraction theory, and supporters were often called “fixists”, as this theory had the continents and oceans stay in fixed positions. Later, a less popular form of fixism, called expansionism, made it into some publications. Much like its name suggests, some scientists believed that the earth may be expanding over time. As the earth expands, the distance between continents would increase as the surface area of the earth increased, forming oceans in the spaces between the continents.

Ewing, a stalwart contractionist, performs speeches at conferences about how his work provides no evidence of any continental movements. Other scientists, such as Arthur Holmes, embrace mobilism and work to strengthen and improve the theory of continental drift. Debate on the subject rages, with the majority of North American geologists remaining fixists while many in Europe, south Africa and Australia are sympathetic to mobilism.

Another Approach

At 17 miles a day, I developed leg muscles, a philosophical attitude toward life, and a profound respect for fieldwork.

- Harry Hess

In 1927, a young man named Harry Hess (1906-1969) graduates from Yale University with a Bachelor of Science in Geology. Hess is an open minded man, open to new ideas and experiences, and after his graduation he travels to Rhodesia where he works as an exploration geologist for 18 months. “At 17 miles a day, I developed leg muscles, a philosophical attitude toward life, and a profound respect for fieldwork.” (Hess, 1960: 85) were the words he later used to describe his experiences in Africa. Upon deciding to go back to school, he is offered a position at Princeton on the reference of a professor named R. M. Field, who he had met during a field school in Canada.

“On the last night before crossing into the United States [Field] told us all liquor on the car had to be disposed of before the border was reached. It was during prohibition in the United States. I consumed far more than my share. Egged on by my fellow students, I was put on the platform and gave a lecture on the Precambrian stratigraphy of Canada. I have no recollection of this lecture but am told it was good. The crucial point is that Field, remembering this lecture, interceded for me and said I would do for the job.” (Hess, 1968: 86)

Tuscarora deep

Upon receiving his Ph.D. in 1932, Hess goes on to teach at several universities, including Rutger’s, Princeton, Cape Town, and Cambridge. Part of his research on island arc belts and oceanic trenches allows him to board submarines in the Caribbean. Island arcs, such as the Japanese Archipelago, the Aleutian Islands, and the Antilles in the Caribbean, are series of volcanic islands arranged in a line. These island arcs are generally situated next to an Ocean Trench, which are long, deep depressions on the sea floor. While aboard the submarine Barracuda in 1937 he works with Maurice Ewing, who is doing similar work on the ocean floor, taking depth and gravity readings. Gravity readings are made with an instrument known as a gravimeter, which quantifies the gravitational attraction of the earth. A well-calibrated mass on a spring is used to make these measurements, with small changes in the length of the spring allowing scientists to calculate gravitational attraction. The Earth has an average gravitational acceleration of 9.8 m/s2 near the surface, and the devices Hess and his associates use are accurate to about 0.0000025 m/s2 (Telford, 1990: 20) – an amazingly precise instrument. Taking gravitational measurements in the Caribbean produces results that back up previous observations on the relationship between island arcs and trenches. Because Gravimeters measure gravitational attraction, they are able to detect the presence of mass. By comparing readings taken in a specific area to a global average, scientists are able to detect whether there is more or less mass in that area than the global average. Hess detects negative gravitational anomalies on the outer side of this island arc belt, meaning that there is less mass there than one would expect to find if the earth was a uniform sphere. He interprets this data to indicate the presence of an ocean trench, and further to suggest that this is the location of one of the “wrinkles” described by the global contraction theory.

Hess is working at Princeton on December 7th 1941, when news of the attack on Pearl Harbor reaches him. As a reserve officer in the U.S. Navy, he leaves Princeton the next morning to report for duty. He volunteers for active sea duty and eventually ends up commanding the assault transport USS Cape Johnson. Hess participats in four major combat landings in his time commanding the Cape Johnson, including the battle of Iwo Jima. Acoustic sounding techniques had improved since its invention in the early 1900s, and began to be known as SONAR (SOund Navigation And Ranging). By using different frequencies of sound waves, SONAR imaging devices are able to get both better resolution and improved range. Hess made extensive use of the SONAR technology at his disposal while he ferried supplies and troops across the Pacific to get a better picture of the bottom of the ocean. During his service, he was the first to discover what he termed a guyot. A guyot is an underwater mountain - also known as a seamount - with a flat top. Some of these guyots could have a remarkably level top up to 10 km in diameter. Hess compares the slope of these guyots to the slope of volcanic cones and finds them similar; this evidence supports the idea that guyots are the remnants of ancient oceanic volcanoes. Hess suggests that these guyots used to make an island arc, similar to the ones he studied in the Caribbean, but over hundreds of thousands of years of weathering from the crashing waves, were weathered down to the flat topped seamounts he observed. Guyots could be found throughout the ocean, sometimes as isolated structures but often appearing near each other in chains.


Crustal wrinkling

Sonar expeditions across both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans during the war result in enormous amounts of raw data. Ewing, who was by now a prominent figure in the world of oceanography, begins the monumental task of integrating this data to form a single map. This project begins in 1948 when Ewing enlists the help of Geologists Marie Tharp and Bruce Heezen, as a drafter and field researcher respectively. Ewing is results-oriented and demanding, and Tharp and Heezen are motivated and willing to devote themselves to the cause. While these new two dimensional profiles Heezen and Tharp use hold more information and are therefore much easier to map from than the old single-point depth sounds, Heezen and Tharp still have to extrapolate a lot in between these profiles, as there are often long stretches of ocean in which they have no data to work from. Tharp, who works closest with the data in drafting the collected points on a map, is the first to notice an unexpected bump in elevation in one profile. Thinking it is a mistake, she checks the nearest adjacent profile and is surprised to notice another bump, very near the location of the previous one. This “bump”, over years of continuous work, eventually reveals itself as a network of oceanic ridges that stretch across the world’s oceans. These ridges could be staggeringly huge; for example, the mid-Atlantic ridge extends 16,000km, from the Arctic Ocean to the tip of Africa. It is not simply a coincidence, and scientists develop a range of explanations for it. Its discovery changes geologists’ attitudes about the ocean. What was once thought of as an almost endless plain of subterranean rock and mud beneath the ocean’s surface, with the occasional island, trench and guyot, is now more widely recognized as an intriguing field of study warranting further research. Continental drift supporters propose that the mid ocean ridge marks where Pangaea once was. When the supercontinent split, it may have left behind the ridge and carved away the ocean crust on either side. Contraction theory has a difficult time explaining the phenomena, but followers of the Earth Expansion theory are able to develop a working hypothesis. Expansion could cause great cracks to form in the Earth’s surface, and allow magma from the mantle to rise to the surface in these areas and form high ridges. Expansionism gained some purchase over contractionism with other fixists because of this in this time period.

On the last night before crossing into the United States [Field] told us all liquor on the car had to be disposed of before the border was reached. It was during prohibition in the United States. I consumed far more than my share. Egged on by my fellow students, I was put on the platform and gave a lecture on the Precambrian stratigraphy of Canada. I have no recollection of this lecture but am told it was good. The crucial point is that Field, remembering this lecture, interceded for me and said I would do for the job.

- Harry Hess

THINK [4]: If you were an oceanographer during this time, what further studies might you propose to investigate the oceanic ridge further?

In 1959, after spending his academic career believing that the continents and oceans are fixed in their current positions, Hess changes his mind. Findings from an emerging niche research topic in the field of geology called “Paleomagnetism” convince him that perhaps the idea of mobile continents isn’t as implausible as he once thought. Investigation into recent volcanic rocks show that these rocks have a small magnetic field of their own. Turn of the century work by Pierre Curie demonstrated that as iron-bearing minerals cooled below a certain temperature (later known as the Curie temperature), the minerals would become magnetized with a field that paralleled the field in which they were located. After the rock cools past the Curie temperature, its magnetic field becomes locked in and is no longer dependent on the Earth’s magnetic field. Therefore, if the rock was rotated after cooling past the Curie temperature, it would no longer run parallel with the Earth’s magnetic field. For example, a rock that cools from a melt and is not moved afterwards would have a field that is parallel to the Earth’s field. But, if the rock was turned or moved at all, the rock’s field would reflect the change in position and would no longer point in the direction of the magnetic field.


Lava flow polarity

When looking at older rocks, scientists find that they mostly did not parallel the Earth’s magnetic field. They point away from the magnetic field, sometimes by only a few degrees but often by quite a lot, as older and older rocks are examined. As we have determined, if the rock’s field is not parallel to the Earth’s field, it means that the rock has moved. But even more confusingly, sometimes they would face completely opposite the North Pole. These confusing observations are difficult to explain, but scientists use them in clever ways to support their preferred theory. For instance, Continental Drift supporters use the fact that older rocks tend to point away from the North Pole to strengthen the theory. As a whole continent moves, the magnetic fields of the rocks on that continent should become less and less aligned with the Earth’s magnetic field. While this fact seems to support continental drift, the rocks with reversed magnetic fields are difficult to explain for both the drift supporters and fixists. While drift cannot explain everything, it seems to be more capable of explaining paleomagnetism than the theories involving fixed continents. Hess, with his strong background in physics and mathematics, has less difficulty than many of his peers in accepting the shortcomings of the old theory and examining the feasibility of the new.

But why did some rocks seem to point closer to the South Pole than the North Pole? The magnetic fields of these rocks seem exactly the same as any other rock, except for the 180difference in direction in which their fields point. Nevertheless, it is mostly ignored or dismissed as an error in sample extraction or the result of an unknown chemical reaction in certain rocks. If this was only seen once or twice they would probably be considered outliers, but as more and more samples with reversed fields become known, sometimes with entire rock formations demonstrating reversals, it becomes more and more difficult to simply dismiss as an error. During the 1950s, as better extraction tools and methods develop and radiometric rock dating improves, it becomes possible to better characterize these reversed magnetic fields, and scientists are able to make observations that allow them to better understand the phenomena (Glen, 1982). Firstly, it seems that rocks with the reversed fields tend to occur within certain time periods. With more advanced radiometric dating techniques, it is now possible to identify periods of time during which any rock that cooled below the Curie temperature should have a reversed magnetic profile. And secondly, this is a global phenomenon. This means that, for example, if one rock in North America was found to have a reversed polarity, any other rock of the same age anywhere else in the world should have reversed polarity as well.

  After examining the paleomagnetic data and attending a presentation by Heezen on his work with Tharp on mapping the ocean floor, in which he proclaimed that they have “shaken the foundations of geology”, Hess writes and informally distributes his manuscript titled Evolution of Ocean Basins. He refers to it as “an essay in geopoetry” rather than an official theory or hypothesis. Centering on the formation of mid ocean ridges and tying it into the theory of continental drift, “Evolution of Ocean Basins” spreads quickly amongst the academic community. While it certainly attracts much criticism, support for Hess’ ideas grows. While Hess firmly believes in the basis of the manuscript, he writes tentatively and humbly, making it clear that there is still room for improvement in the theory.

“It is hardly likely that all of the numerous assumptions made are correct. Nevertheless it appears to be a useful framework for testing various and sundry groups of hypotheses relating to the oceans. It is hoped that the framework with necessary patching and repair may eventually form the basis for a new and sounder structure.” (Hess, 1962: 33-34)

THINK [5]: Hess put forth an idea he referred to as “geopoetry”, giving a notion of his level of commitment to the idea. What are some pros and cons of a tentative approach such as this?



Hess later officially publishes his manuscript in the Journal of Petrologic Studies in 1962. Retitled as the “History of Ocean Basins”, it explores many reasons why Hess believes the prevalent idea of immobile continents could no longer be considered believable. The mechanism behind his theory rests on the idea of convection currents within the earth’s mantle, referencing the ideas of the influential geologist and continental drift supporter Arthur Holmes. As this mobile rock is heated at great depth, it becomes more buoyant than the above rock and moves upward. As it moves upwards, it eventually is pushed aside and cools, sinking back down, forming a circular cycle known as a convection current.

Spreading ocean ridges

“The mid-ocean ridges could represent the traces of the rising limbs of convection cells… The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is median because the continental areas on each side of it have moved away from it at the same rate – a centimeter a year. This is not exactly the same as continental drift. The continents do not plow through oceanic crust impelled by unknown forces, rather they ride passively on mantle material as it comes to the surface of the crest of the ridge and then moves laterally away from it. On this basis the crest of the ridge should have only recent sediments on it” (Hess, 1960: 16).

Hess also proposes that the “whole ocean is virtually swept clean (replaced by new mantle material) every 300 to 400 million years” (Hess, 1960: 32) as the conveyor-belt-like cycle of oceanic crust forming at the ridge, being pushed slowly outwards, and then sinking below the continents continues.

THINK [6]: How would you go about testing this hypothesis? Try to devise an experiment that could provide evidence for or against this theory.

Hess’s proposal sparks a lot of thought about continental drift in the scientific community. The movement of the oceanic floor resulting from convection currents seems extraordinarily similar to the idea of continental drift, in that they both involve the gradual movement of enormous rock masses over great lengths of time. Supporters of continental drift seize this opportunity to strengthen their argument for continental drift, and support gradually grows. This is not a quick and easy process however, as many scientists are reluctant to change their worldviews.

“This extremely painful “conversion” experience has been crucial in shaping my own vision of what science is about. During a period of 24 hours, I had the impression that my whole world was crumbling. I tried desperately to reject his new evidence, but it had an extraordinary predictive power!” (Le Pichon, 2001: 212)

THINK [7]: What is meant by the term “extraordinary predictive power”?

Hess’s manuscript certainly has its critics, and among those objecting to this new theory are Maurice Ewing and Bruce Heezen. Ewing, a staunch fixist, argues against many of Hess’ points in favour of the idea of immovable oceans and continents. And Heezen, an Expansionist, also opposes sea floor spreading. As two of the biggest names in seafloor geoscience, their opinions hold considerable clout, but eventually, public opinion sways as evidence supporting Hess’ idea grows. Radiometric dating of the sea floor sediments reveal that they were geologically young, and are found to be older the further you were from a mid-Atlantic ridge. If the oceans did not move and were not recycled, one would expect them to be as old as the continents and of uniform age throughout. The oldest rocks on the seafloor were found to be around 200 million years old, whereas older continental rocks can be several billion years old. This alone is very strong evidence for Hess’ idea of seafloor spreading, and the presence of very young rocks near the ridge and older rocks appearing further away further supports it.

            Investigations into paleomagnetism bring forth even more convincing data. Researchers in paleomagnetism develop a theory explaining the strange phenomena of reversing rock polarities, and it involves thinking about the Earth’s magnetic properties in a novel way. These scientists propose that the Earth’s magnetic field is not stable, and is subject to periodic reversals over long periods of time. For mysterious reasons, it seems that the earth’s magnetic north pole can sometimes switch places with the South Pole. Examining the rock record reveals many of these reversals occurring throughout the Earth’s history, and a single instance of the magnetic poles changing places is referred to as a magnetic reversal. Knowledge of these magnetic reversals are then used to test Hess’ theory.

Alternating magnetic polarity

If oceanic crust forms at the ridge and moves away from it on both sides at equal rates, you would expect to see a symmetrical pattern of alternating magnetic alignments running parallel to the oceanic ridge axis. The invention of a new instrument called a magnetometer that measures the magnetic field of the seafloor as it is towed behind a moving boat made the creation of the diagram shown in figure 14 possible. Sea floor spreading, Hess argues, can be used to explain the features discovered earlier on the ocean floor. Rocks form at the ridge, pick up their magnetic orientation, and gradually move further from the ridge, being displaced by the newer volcanic rocks forming in this oceanic ridge location. The mid-ocean ridge represents the area above the upwelling mantle convection current, and ocean trenches bordering island arcs may be the locations where ocean crust sinks back into the mantle. Guyots may have once been volcanic islands that formed near the ridge, and then been weathered and eroded by wave action, developing their flat tops. Then, as they move with the ocean floor off of the ridge, they lose elevation and become the submerged seamounts that can be seen today. Sea floor spreading offers explanations for all of these oceanic structures, while contraction theories, having been used for decades to explain other phenomena, now have difficulty adapting to these new situations.

THINK [8]: We have now discussed five methods in which scientists have examined the seafloor: depth sounding, acoustic imaging (SONAR), seismic surveys, gravitational measurements and magnetic imaging. What are some pros and cons of each? Is any method clearly superior to the others? Why or why not?

By the late 1960s’ the scientific community mostly agrees that fixism is no longer adequate in explaining the dynamics of the world, and start to move on to the promising theory of continental drift. By using new data from the most advanced technologies of the time, scientists are able to move away from the older theory and embrace the new, but only after careful evaluation and experimentation of new data and techniques.

THINK [9]: Compare and contrast the two maps below. The upper map, created in the mid-1800s, was made with information from weighted depth sounds, similar to the ones used in the Challenger expedition. The lower map is modern, and was made mostly from ship-track soundings and gravity data taken from satellites. How do the amount of data used to make each chart compare? How does this effect the resolution and accuracy of the map?

Old Map
Ocean Map


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