A mid-ocean ridge is an underwater mountain system formed by plate tectonics. It consists of various mountains linked in chains, typically having a valley known as a rift running along its spine. This type of oceanic mountain ridge is characteristic of what is known as an oceanic spreading center, which is responsible for seafloor spreading. The production of new seafloor results from mantle upwelling in response to plate spreading; this isentropic upwelling solid mantle material eventually exceeds the solidus and melts. The buoyant melt rises as magma at a linear weakness in the oceanic crust, and emerges as lava, creating new crust upon cooling. A mid-ocean ridge demarcates the boundary between two tectonic plates, and consequently is termed a divergent plate boundary.
Mid-ocean ridges are geologically active, with new magma constantly emerging onto the ocean floor and into the crust at and near rifts along the ridge axes. The crystallized magma forms new crust of basalt (known as MORB for mid-ocean ridge basalt) and below it, gabbro. They are formed by two oceanic plates moving away from each other. Hydrothermal vents are a common feature at oceanic spreading centers.
The rocks making up the crust below the seafloor are youngest along the axis of the ridge and age with increasing distance from that axis. New magma of basalt composition emerges at and near the axis because of decompression melting in the underlying Earth's mantle.
The oceanic crust is made up of rocks much younger than the Earth itself. Most oceanic crust in the ocean basins is less than 200 million years old. The crust is in a constant state of "renewal" at the ocean ridges. Moving away from the mid-ocean ridge, ocean depth progressively increases; the greatest depths are in ocean trenches. As the oceanic crust moves away from the ridge axis, the peridotite in the underlying mantle cools and becomes more rigid. The crust and the relatively rigid peridotite below it make up the oceanic lithosphere.
Slow spreading ridges like the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (MAR) generally have large, wide rift valleys, sometimes as wide as 10–20 km (6.2–12.4 mi), and very rugged terrain at the ridge crest that can have relief of up to a 1,000 m (3,300 ft). By contrast, fast spreading ridges like the East Pacific Rise (EPR) are narrow, sharp incisions surrounded by generally flat topography that slopes away from the ridge over many hundreds of miles.
The overall shape of ridges results from Pratt isostacy: close to the ridge axis there is hot, low-density mantle supporting the oceanic crust. As the oceanic plates cool, away from the ridge axes, the oceanic mantle lithosphere (the colder, denser part of the mantle that, together with the crust, comprises the oceanic plates) thickens and the density increases. Thus older seafloor is underlain by denser material and 'sits' lower. The width of the ridge is hence a function of spreading rate – slow ridges like the MAR have spread much less far than faster ridges like the EPR for the same amount of cooling and consequent bathymetric drop-off.
There are two processes, ridge-push and slab pull, thought to be responsible for the spreading seen at mid-ocean ridges, and there is some uncertainty as to which is dominant. Ridge-push occurs when the growing bulk of the ridge pushes the rest of the tectonic plate away from the ridge, often towards a subduction zone. At the subduction zone, "slab-pull" comes into effect. This is simply the weight of the tectonic plate being subducted (pulled) below the overlying plate dragging the rest of the plate along behind it. The slab pull mechanism is considered to be contributing more than the ridge push.
The other process proposed to contribute to the formation of new oceanic crust at mid-ocean ridges is the "mantle conveyor" (see image). However, there have been some studies which have shown that the upper mantle (asthenosphere) is too plastic (flexible) to generate enough friction to pull the tectonic plate along. Moreover, unlike in the image above, mantle upwelling that causes magma to form beneath the ocean ridges appears to involve only its upper 400 km (250 mi), as deduced from seismic tomography and from studies of the seismic discontinuity at about 400 km (250 mi). The relatively shallow depths from which the upwelling mantle rises below ridges are more consistent with the "slab-pull" process. On the other hand, some of the world's largest tectonic plates such as the North American Plate are in motion, yet are nowhere being subducted.
The rate at which the mid-ocean ridge creates new material is known as the spreading rate, and is generally measured in mm/yr. The common subdivisions of spreading rate are fast, medium, and slow with values generally being >100 mm/yr, 100–55 mm/yr, and 55–20 mm/yr, respectively. The spreading rate of the North Atlantic Ocean is ~ 25 mm/yr, while in the Pacific region, it is 80–120 mm/yr. Ridges that spread at rates <20 mm/yr are referred to as ultraslow spreading ridges (e.g., the Gakkel Ridge in the Arctic Ocean and the Southwest Indian Ridge) and they provide a much different perspective on crustal formation than their faster spreading brethren.
The mid-ocean ridge systems form new oceanic crust. As crystallized basalt extruded at a ridge axis cools below Curie points of appropriate iron-titanium oxides, magnetic field directions parallel to the Earth's magnetic field are recorded in those oxides. The orientations of the field in the oceanic crust preserve a record of directions of the Earth's magnetic field with time. Because the field has reversed directions at irregular intervals throughout its history, the pattern of geomagnetic reversals in the ocean crust can be used as an indicator of age. Likewise, the pattern of reversals together with age measurements of the crust is used to help establish the history of the Earth's magnetic field.
The mid-ocean ridges of the world are connected and form the Ocean Ridge, a single global mid-oceanic ridge system that is part of every ocean, making it the longest mountain range in the world. The continuous mountain range is 65,000 km (40,400 mi) long (several times longer than the Andes, the longest continental mountain range), and the total length of the oceanic ridge system is 80,000 km (49,700 mi) long.
Mid-ocean ridges are generally submerged deep in the ocean. It was not until the 1950s, when the ocean floor was surveyed in detail, that their full extent became known.
The Vema, a ship of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, traversed the Atlantic Ocean, recording data about the ocean floor from the ocean surface. A team led by Marie Tharp and Bruce Heezen analyzed the data and concluded that there was an enormous mountain chain running up the middle. Scientists named it the "Mid-Atlantic Ridge".
At first, the ridge was thought to be a phenomenon specific to the Atlantic Ocean. However, as surveys of the ocean floor continued around the world, it was discovered that every ocean contains parts of the mid-ocean ridge system. Although the ridge system runs down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the ridge is located away from the center of other oceans.
Alfred Wegener proposed the theory of continental drift in 1912. He stated: "the Mid-Atlantic Ridge ... zone in which the floor of the Atlantic, as it keeps spreading, is continuously tearing open and making space for fresh, relatively fluid and hot sima [rising] from depth." However, Wegener did not pursue this observation in his later works and his theory was dismissed by geologists because there was no mechanism to explain how continents could plow through ocean crust, and the theory became largely forgotten.
Following the discovery of the worldwide extent of the mid-ocean ridge in the 1950s, geologists faced a new task: explaining how such an enormous geological structure could have formed. In the 1960s, geologists discovered and began to propose mechanisms for seafloor spreading. The discovery of Mid-ocean ridges and the process of seafloor spreading allowed for Wegner's theory to be expanded so that it included the movement of oceanic crust as well as the continents. Plate tectonics was a suitable explanation for seafloor spreading, and the acceptance of plate tectonics by the majority of geologists resulted in a major paradigm shift in geological thinking.
It is estimated that 20 volcanic eruptions occur each year along earth's mid-ocean ridges and that every year 2.5 km2 (0.97 sq mi) of new seafloor is formed by this process. With a crustal thickness of 1 to 2 km (0.62 to 1.24 mi), this amounts to about 4 km3 (0.96 cu mi) of new ocean crust formed every year.