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The Earth and the Ocean Basins
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Relief of the Sea Floor

From the oceanographic point of view the chief interest in the topography of the sea floor is that it forms the lower and lateral boundaries of water. The presence of land barriers or submarine ridges that impede a free flow of water introduces special characteristics in the pattern of circulation and in the distribution of properties and organisms. Furthermore, as will be shown in chapter XX, the nature of the sediments in any area is closely related to the surrounding topography. On the other hand, the geomorphologist or physiographer is concerned primarily with the distribution and dimensions of certain types of topographic features that occur on the submerged portion of the earth's crust. As 71 per cent of the earth's surface is water-covered, knowledge of the major features of the earth's relief will be fragmentary if based only upon those structures that can be seen on land. During the geological history of the earth which covers a span of some thousands of million years, areas now exposed above sea level have at one or more periods been covered by the sea, and parts of the now submerged surface have been above sea level. Many problems in historical geology are therefore dependent upon knowledge concerning the configuration of the sea floor surrounding the continents and the form of the deep-ocean bottom.

Although valuable work in the open ocean has been carried on by scientific organizations, by far the greater proportion of our knowledge of submarine topography is based on soundings taken by or for national agencies in the preparation or improvement of navigational charts. In the United States the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey prepares charts for the waters bounding the United States and its possessions, and the Hydrographic Office of the U. S. Navy carries out similar work on the high seas and in foreign waters. The earlier hydrographic work was limited largely to the mapping of coast lines and to soundings in depths less than about 100 fathoms, where hazards to the safe operation of vessels might occur, but deep-sea soundings received a great impetus when surveys were made prior to the laying of the transoceanic cables in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Up to and including the time of the voyage of the Challenger, 1873–1876, all soundings were made with hemp ropes, which made the process a long and tedious undertaking,

since in depths of several thousand meters it required several hours to make a single depth measurement. A great improvement in sounding equipment was made when wire ropes and, for sounding at great depths, single-strand wire were introduced, thereby reducing the size of the gear necessary for deep-sea sounding and the time for lowering and reeling in. An earlier improvement was achieved by the introduction of methods of dropping the sounding weight after it had reached the bottom, thus reducing the load to be reeled in. The first such device was developed in the middle of the last century by J. M. Brooke of the U. S. Navy.
Equipment now used for wire sounding is described in chapter X, which deals with oceanographic apparatus and methods.

Body Area (106 km2) Volume (106 km3) Mean depth (m)
Atlantic Ocean excluding adjacent seas 82.441 323.613 3926
Pacific Ocean excluding adjacent seas 165.246 707.555 4282
Indian Ocean excluding adjacent seas 73.443 291.030 3963
All oceans (excluding adjacent seas) 321.130 1322.198 4117
Aretic Mediterranean 14.090 16.980 1205
American Mediterranean 4.319 9.573 2216
Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea 2.966 4.238 1429
Asiatic Mediterranean 8.143 9.873 1212
Large mediterranean seas 29.518 40.664 1378
Baltic Sea 0.422 0.023 55
Hudson Bay 1.232 0.158 128
Red Sea 0.438 0.215 491
Persian Gulf 0.239 0.006 25
Small mediterranean seas 2.331 0.402 172
All mediterranean seas 31.849 41.066 1289
North Sea 0.575 0.054 94
English Channel 0.075 0.004 54
Irish Sea 0.103 0.006 60
Gulf of St. Lawrence 0.238 0.030 127
Andaman Sea 0.798 0.694 870
Bering Sea 2.268 3.259 1437
Okhotsk Sea 1.528 1.279 838
Japan Sea 1.008 1.361 1350
East China Sea 1.249 0.235 188
Gulf of California 0.162 0.132 813
Bass Strait 0.075 0.005 70
Marginal seas 8.079 7.059 874
All adjacent seas 39.928 48.125 1205
Atlantic Ocean 106.463 354.679 3332
Pacific Ocean, including adjacent seas 179.679 723.699 4028
Indian Ocean 74.917 291.945 3897
All oceans (including adjacent seas) 361.059 1370.323 3795

Because of their practical importance and the ease with which they could be obtained, the number of soundings in depths less than a few hundred meters accumulated rapidly during the nineteenth century, but in 1895 there existed only 7000 soundings from depths greater than about 2000 m, and of these only about 550 were from depths greater than 5500 m (Bencker, 1930). These data were used by Murray in preparing the bathymetric charts accompanying the reports of the Challenger Expedition.

During the next twenty-five years the number of deep-sea soundings increased slowly, but the introduction of sonic-sounding equipment after 1920 has completely changed the picture. Devices for measuring the depth by timing the interval for a sound impulse to travel to the sea bottom and back again (only a few seconds even in deep water) are used in surveying work and are now standard equipment on many coastwise and oceanic vessels. The development of automatic echo-sounding devices (chapter X) not only made depth measurements simple but, by making accurate bathymetric charts available, introduced another aid in navigation, since passage over irregularities of the sea floor may be used to check positions. This development has necessitated extending accurate surveys into deeper water and, hence, farther from shore. Along the coasts of the United States the bottom is now being charted in detail to depths of about 4000 m. With sonic methods, if the appropriate apparatus is available, it is no more trouble to sound in great depths than it is in shoal waters, and, since many naval vessels and transoceanic commercial vessels make systematic records of their observations, the soundings in the deep sea are now accumulating more rapidly than they can be plotted.

The most common method of representing submarine topography is to enter upon a chart showing the coast lines the numerical values of the soundings at the localities in which they were obtained. Charts issued by the national hydrographic services of the English-speaking countries give depths in fathoms or, if harbor charts, in feet (1 fathom = 6 ft = 1.8288 m). Those issued by other countries generally use meters, although still other units are employed by certain European countries.

Because it is generally impossible to enter all soundings, and as numerical values alone do not give any graphic representation of the topography, contours of equal depths (isobaths) are drawn in those regions in which the number of soundings or the purpose of the chart makes it desirable. On navigational charts, contours are generally restricted to shallow areas where soundings are also shown, but, for certain regions that have been carefully examined, charts are now issued with contours entered to depths as great as 2000 fathoms (for example, U. S.

Coast and Geodetic Survey Chart no. 5101A for the southern California coast, issued in 1939). In bathymetric charts prepared for oceanographic work, contours alone may be shown, but only in exceptional cases, such as in physiographic studies, are the isobaths shown for equal intervals of depth.

The accuracy with which submarine topography can be portrayed depends upon the number of soundings available and upon the accuracy with which the positions of the soundings were determined. Topographic maps of land surfaces are based on essentially similar data; namely, elevations of accurately located points, but the surveyor has one great advantage over the hydrographer. The surveyor is able to see the area under examination and thereby distribute his observation points in such a manner that the more essential features of the topography are accurately portrayed. The hydrographer, on the other hand, must construct the topography of the sea floor from a number of more or less random soundings. Sonic sounding methods and the introduction of more accurate means of locating positions at sea (see Veatch and Smith, 1939) have made it feasible to obtain adequate data for constructing moderately accurate charts or models of parts of the sea floor. This is particularly true of the coastal waters of the United States. Veatch and Smith have prepared contour maps of the eastern seaboard based on the investigations of the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, and Shepard and Emery (1941) have made use of similar data from the Pacific Coast, where over 1,300,000 soundings were available.

In some instances it is preferable to represent the bottom configuration by vertical profiles or by relief models, but, because of the difference in magnitude of the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the oceans, it is generally necessary to exaggerate the vertical scale. The average depth of the ocean is about 3800 m, and the vertical relief of the ocean floor is therefore of the order of a few kilometers, whereas the horizontal distances may be of the order of thousands of kilometers. Hence such distorted representations give a false impression of the steepness of submarine slopes. If profiles are drawn to natural scale, the ocean waters form a shallow band with barely perceptible undulations of the bottom. Examples of undistorted profiles are given by Johnstone (1928).

In fig. 1 are shown two representations of a profile of the sea bottom in the South Atlantic based on the observations of the Meteor (Stocks and Wüst, 1935). The upper section (A) is constructed from thirteen wire soundings, and is comparable in detail to most of the profiles that could be prepared before the introduction of sonic methods. The lower section (B) is based upon over 1300 sonic soundings that were taken by the Meteor along the same route, shown in the map at the bottom part of the figure (C), where the depth contours are from chart I. The increasing complexity of the known topography of the sea bottom resulting

from the greater number of observations is readily seen from a comparison of A and B.

The water surface coincides, for all practical purposes, with the surface of the geoid, and the sea bottom, if “flat,” would be parallel to the sea surface. Irregularities of the sea floor therefore represent departures from this surface, which is convex outward. Only in small features with steep slopes are depressions actually concave outward.


Bottom topography in the South Atlantic Ocean. (A) Profile of the bottom between the South Shetland Islands and Bouvet Island based on 13 wire soundings. (B) Profile over the same course constructed from over 1300 sonic soundings (Meteor). (C) Bottom configuration as shown in Chart I and the track of the Meteor. Vertical exaggeration in (A) and (B) about 200:1. (In part, after Stocks and Wüst, 1935.)

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The greatest depths so far discovered are in the Pacific Ocean, where, in the Philippines Trench and the Japan Trench, soundings greater than 10,000 m have been obtained. In the Philippines Trench the German vessel Emden obtained a sonic sounding of 10,540 m, which, however, is considered to be about 200 m too great. The Dutch vessel Willebrord

Snellius, working in the same area and using wire sounding equipment, found depths greater than 10,000 m. A sounding of 10,550 m in the Japan Trench was made by the U.S.S. Ramapo, using sonic equipment. The deepest sonic sounding in the Atlantic Ocean, 8750 m, was obtained in the Puerto Rico Trough by the U.S.S. Milwaukee. Bencker (1930) has listed the numerous deeps as well as the shoals found in oceanic areas.

Representations of submarine topography are usually referred to sea level, and particular interest has always been attached to those regions in which great depths are found. The greater detail with which the sea floor can now be mapped has emphasized the importance of relative relief; that is, the form and magnitude of elevations or depressions with respect to their general surroundings. In later pages it will be shown that there are two primary levels of reference on the earth's crust, one slightly above sea level, corresponding to the land masses, and a second at depths between 4000 and 5000 m, corresponding to the great oceanic basins. In comparing topographic features on land with those on the sea floor it is essential to consider them with reference to these levels.


Hypsographic curve showing the area of the earth's solid surface above any given level of elevation or depth. At the left in the figure is the frequency distribution of elevations and depths for 1000-meter intervals.

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One method of presenting the character of the relief of the earth's crust is by means of a hypsographic curve showing the area of the earth's solid surface above any given contour of elevation or depth. The hypsographic curve in fig. 2 is from Kossinna (1921). Although added data

concerning bottom configuration may slightly modify this curve, the general features will not be changed. The high mountains form a relatively small part of the land surface, and hence the mean elevation of the subaerial crust is only 840 m. The large areas of low-lying land have their counterpart in the relatively large areas in shallow water between the surface and approximately 200 m (table 5). These coastal areas of shallow depth correspond to the continental shelves. Below the continental shelf there is a relatively small area of depths between 200 m and 3000 m, corresponding to the continental slope, and then follows the extensive oceanic abyss, with depths between about 3500 and 6000 m. The deeps, which by definition exceed 6000 m, form a very small part of the sea floor. Shown in the figure is the mean sphere depth, which is the uniform depth to which the water would cover the earth if the solid surface were smoothed off and were parallel to the surface of the geoid. The mean depth of the sea, which is 3800 m, is also shown.

The hypsographic curve of the earth's crust should not be interpreted as an average profile of the land surface and sea bottom, because it represents merely the summation of areas between certain levels without respect to their location or to the relation of elevations and depressions. Actually, the highest mountains are commonly near the continental coasts, large areas of low-lying land are located in the central parts of the continents, and the greatest depths are found near the continental masses, and not in the middle of the oceanic depressions. Entered in fig. 2 are the percentages of elevations and depressions for 1000-m intervals. These show two maxima, one just above sea level and a second between depths of 4000 and 5000 m. The significance of these maxima is discussed later (p. 23).

In table 5 are given the percentage areas of the depth zones in the three oceans, and for all oceans with and without adjacent seas. It will be noted that the shelf (0–200 m) represents a prominent feature in the Atlantic Ocean, which is also the shallowest of the oceans. By combining data in tables 4 and 5 the absolute areas of the depth zones may be computed. The hypsographic curve in fig. 2 is based on the values for all oceans, including adjacent seas.

During the geological history of the earth, great changes have occurred in the relief of the land and sea bottom. The exact nature and extent of these vertical movements is beyond the scope of the present discussion, but it should be noted that changes in relative sea level of the order of 100 m, which are readily accounted for by the withdrawal and addition of water during glacial and interglacial periods, would expose and inundate relatively large areas.

The continental shelf is generally considered to extend to depths of 100 fathoms, or 200 m, but Shepard (1939) found that the limit should be somewhat less than this; namely, between 60 and 80 fathoms (110 and

146 m). Profiles of the shelf show the presence of many minor terraces that may represent the effects of waves and currents when the sea level stood at a lower level, probably during the glacial periods. Veatch and Smith (1939), from their detailed study of the continental shelf off the Atlantic coast of the United States, found many small ridges approximately parallel to the coast line. The continental shelf varies greatly in width and slope. In some cases, as off mountainous coasts, the shelf may be virtually absent, whereas, off glaciated coasts and off the mouths of large rivers and areas with broad lowlands, the shelf may be very wide. For the world as a whole, the shelf width is approximately 30 miles, with a range from zero to over 800 miles. This extremely wide shelf is found in the North Polar Sea along the coast of Siberia.

Depth interval (m) Including adjacent seas Excluding adjacent seas
Atlantic Pacific Indian All oceans Atlantic Pacific Indian All oceans
0–200 13.3 5.7 4.2 7.6 5.6 1.7 3.2 3.1
200–1000 7.1 3.1 3.1 4.3 4.0 2.2 2.7 2.8
1000–2000 5.3 3.9 3.4 4.2 3.6 3.4 3.1 3.4
2000–3000 8.8 5.2 7.4 6.8 7.6 5.0 7.4 6.2
3000–4000 18.5 18.5 24.0 19.6 19.4 19.1 24.4 20.4
4000–5000 25.8 35.2 38.1 33.0 32.4 37.7 38.9 36.6
5000–6000 20.6 26.6 19.4 23.3 26.6 28.8 19.9 26.2
6000–7000 0.6 1.6 0.4 1.1 0.8 1.8 0.4 1.2
>7000 .... 0.2 .... 0.1 .... 0.3 .... 0.1

From the above values it may be seen that the average slope of the shelf is of the order of 2 fathoms per mile, or 0.2 per cent. This corresponds to a slope angle of about 7ʹ. Although there is a general seaward slope of the shelf, it is by no means an even-graded profile. As mentioned above, there may be terraces, ridges, hills, and depressions, and in many areas there are steep-walled canyons cutting across it. Shelf irregularities are most conspicuous off glaciated coasts, and were caused by the ice during a glacial period when this zone was exposed to glacial erosion (Shepard, 1931).

On land the slope is often more significant than the absolute range in elevation. According to Littlehales (1932) the smallest slope that the human eye can detect is 17ʹ. Therefore, except for the minor irregularities, the continental shelf would in general appear flat.


From an examination of 500 profiles, Shepard (1941) found that the inclination of the continental slope varied with the character of the coast. Continental slopes off mountainous coasts have, on the average, a slope of about 6 per cent (3°30ʹ), whereas off coasts with wide, well-drained coastal plains the slopes are about 3.5 per cent (2°0ʹ).

The submerged slopes of volcanic islands are similar to the exposed slopes of volcanic mountains, and may be as great as 50° (Kuenen, 1935). In large submarine canyons the walls are as rugged and precipitous as those of the Grand Canyon of Arizona (fig. 8, p. 40). Fault scarps above and below sea level show comparable slopes.

The average slopes of the deep-sea floor are small. Krümmel (Littlehales, 1932) found that in the North Atlantic the mean slopes varied between about 20ʹ and 40ʹ, but these are averages, or were obtained by dividing the difference in elevation by the distance between two points. Where the distances are great or when the number of soundings is small, the slopes obtained in this way do not give a true representation of the relief. The increased data now available have revealed irregularities comparable in ruggedness to the larger topographic features on land.

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The Earth and the Ocean Basins
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