Geophysics

Parting the Red Sea

+ See all authors and affiliations

Science  11 Nov 2011:
Vol. 334, Issue 6057, pp. 739
DOI: 10.1126/science.334.6057.739-c
CREDIT: JEFF SCHMALTZ, MODIS RAPID RESPONSE TEAM, NASA/GSFC

The opening and closing of ocean basins has had a dramatic influence on climate and biological evolution over Earth's history. These processes occur roughly every 500 million years, but how they're initiated—particularly in the case of continental rifting to form the seafloor of new ocean basins—remains enigmatic. To understand the beginning stages of continental rifting, Ligi et al. performed geophysical surveys and collected seafloor samples from aboard the R/V Urania in the Red Sea, which rests atop one of the most prominent modern continental rift zones. The Red Sea Rift is still in the process of rifting, so it includes a span of oceanic crust formed over the past two million years. The data suggest that new seafloor forms initially as an intense pulse of convection-driven mantle upwelling breaks through the continental crust, rapidly declining as convection of the mantle weakens with a widening rift. This process is pulling Africa apart from Arabia to form a new ocean, just as it may have contributed in the past to the breakup of supercontinents.

Geology 39, 1019 (2011).

Navigate This Article