Divergent Boundaries

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Places where plates are coming apart are called divergent boundaries. When Earth's brittle surface layer (the lithosphere) is pulled apart, it typically breaks along parallel faults that tilt slightly outward from each other. As the plates separate along the boundary, the block between the faults cracks and drops down into the soft, plastic interior (the asthenosphere). The sinking of the block forms a central valley called a rift. Magma (liquid rock) seeps upward to fill the cracks. In this way, new crust is formed along the boundary. Earthquakes occur along the faults, and volcanoes form where the magma reaches the surface.

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Where a divergent boundary crosses the land, the rift valleys which form are typically 30 to 50 kilometers wide. Examples include the East Africa rift in Kenya and Ethiopia, and the Rio Grande rift in New Mexico. Where a divergent boundary crosses the ocean floor, the rift valley is much narrower, only a kilometer or less across, and it runs along the top of a midoceanic ridge. Oceanic ridges rise a kilometer or so above the ocean floor and form a global network tens of thousands of miles long. Examples include the Mid-Atlantic ridge and the East Pacific Rise.

Plate separation is a slow process. For example, divergence along the Mid Atlantic ridge causes the Atlantic Ocean to widen at only about 2 centimeters per year.