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5.5: Magnetic Evidence for Seafloor Spreading

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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What causes the strange stripes on the seafloor?

This pattern of stripes could represent what scientists see on the seafloor. Note that the stripes are symmetrical about the central dusky purple stripe. In the oceans, magnetic stripes are symmetrical about a mid-ocean ridge axis. What could cause this? What could it possibly mean?

Seafloor Magnetism

On our transit to the Mid-Atlantic ridge, we tow a magnetometer behind the ship. Shipboard magnetometers reveal the magnetic polarity of the rock beneath them. The practice of towing a magnetometer began during WWII when navy ships towed magnetometers to search for enemy submarines.

When scientists plotted the points of normal and reversed polarity on a seafloor map they made an astonishing discovery: the normal and reversed magnetic polarity of seafloor basalts creates a pattern.

  • Stripes of normal polarity and reversed polarity alternate across the ocean bottom.
  • Stripes form mirror images on either side of the mid-ocean ridges (Figure below).
  • Stripes end abruptly at the edges of continents, sometimes at a deep sea trench (Figure below).

Magnetic polarity is normal at the ridge crest but reversed in symmetrical patterns away from the ridge center. This normal and reversed pattern continues across the seafloor.

The magnetic stripes are what created the map above. Research cruises today tow magnetometers to add detail to existing magnetic polarity data.

Seafloor Age

By combining magnetic polarity data from rocks on land and on the seafloor with radiometric age dating and fossil ages, scientists came up with a time scale for the magnetic reversals. The first four magnetic periods are:

  • Brunhes normal - present to 730,000 years ago.
  • Matuyama reverse - 730,000 years ago to 2.48 million years ago.
  • Gauss normal - 2.48 to 3.4 million years ago.
  • Gilbert reverse – 3.4 to 5.3 million years ago.

The scientists noticed that the rocks got older with distance from the mid-ocean ridges. The youngest rocks were located at the ridge crest and the oldest rocks were located the farthest away, abutting continents.

Scientists also noticed that the characteristics of the rocks and sediments changed with distance from the ridge axis as seen in the Table below.

Rock ages Sediment thickness Crust thickness Heat flow
At ridge axis youngest none thinnest hottest
With distance from axis becomes older becomes thicker becomes thicker becomes cooler

Away from the ridge crest, sediment becomes older and thicker, and the seafloor becomes thicker. Heat flow, which indicates the warmth of a region, is highest at the ridge crest.

A map of sediment thickness is found here: http://earthguide.ucsd.edu/eoc/teachers/t_tectonics/p_sedimentthickness.html.

The oldest seafloor is near the edges of continents or deep sea trenches and is less than 180 million years old (Figure below). Since the oldest ocean crust is so much younger than the oldest continental crust, scientists realized that something was happening to the older seafloor.

Seafloor is youngest at the mid-ocean ridges and becomes progressively older with distance from the ridge.

How can you explain the observations that scientists have made in the oceans? Why is rock younger at the ridge and oldest at the farthest points from the ridge? The scientists suggested that seafloor was being created at the ridge. Since the planet is not getting larger, they suggested that it is destroyed in a relatively short amount of geologic time.

This 65 minute video explains “The Role of Paleomagnetism in the Evolution of Plate Tectonic Theory”: http://online.wr.usgs.gov/calendar/2004/jul04.html.


  • Data from magnetometers dragged behind ships looking for enemy submarines in WWII discovered amazing magnetic patterns on the seafloor.
  • Rocks of normal and reversed polarity are found in stripes symmetrically about the mid-ocean ridge axis.
  • The age of seafloor rocks increases from the ridge crest to rocks the farthest from the ridges. Still, the rocks of the ocean basins are much younger than most of the rocks of the continents.


Use this resource to answer the questions that follow.


1. What is the purpose of our magnetic field?

2. Where was Bernard Burnhes doing his research?

3. What did Burnhes discover?

4. Explain what Burnhes concluded from his discovery.

5. How many times has the magnetic field reversed?

6. What seems to be occurring now?


1. Describe the pattern the magnetic stripes make in the ocean floor.

2. How does magnetic polarity reveal the age of a piece of seafloor?

3. What other indications do scientists have regarding the age of the seafloor in various locations?

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Difficulty Level:
At Grade
Date Created:
Feb 24, 2012
Last Modified:
Aug 07, 2016
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