Non-Orthogonality of Seafloor Spreading: A New Look at Fast Spreading Centers

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Tuo Zhang and Richard G Gordon, Rice Univ, Houston, TX, United States
Most of Earth’s surface is created by seafloor spreading, which is one of a handful of fundamental global tectonic processes. While most seafloor spreading is orthogonal, that is, the strike of mid-ocean ridge segments are perpendicular to transform faults, examples of significant non-orthogonality have been noted since the 1970s, in particular in regions of slow seafloor spreading such as the western Gulf of Aden with the non-orthogonality up to 45°. In contrast, here we focus on fast and ultra-fast seafloor spreading along the East Pacific Rise.

For our analysis, instead of comparing the strike of mid-ocean ridges with the strike of nearby transform faults, the azimuth of which can be uncertain, we compare with the direction of plate motion determined from the angular velocity that best fits all the data along the boundary of a single plate pair [DeMet, Gordon, and Argus 2010]. The advantages of our approach include greater accuracy and the ability to estimate non-orthogonality where there are no nearby transform faults.

Estimating the strikes of fast-spreading mid-ocean ridge segments present several challenges as non-transform offsets on various scales affect the estimate of the strike. Moreover, the strike may vary considerably within a single ridge segment bounded by transform faults. This is especially evident near overlapping spreading centers along with the strike varies rapidly with distance along a ridge segment. We use various bathymetric data sets to make our estimates including ETOPO1 [Amante and Eakins, 2009] and GeoMapApp [Ryan et al., 2009].

While spreading is orthogonal or nearly orthogonal along much of the East Pacific Rise, it appears that some ridge segments along the Pacific-Nazca boundary near 30°S and near 16°S−22°S deviate significantly from orthogonality by as much as 6°−12° even when we exclude the portions of mid-ocean ridge segments involved in overlapping spreading centers. Thus modest but significant non-orthogonality occurs where seafloor spreading is the fastest on the planet. Implications for mid-ocean ridge processes, hypothesized lithosphere deformation, and non-closure of plate motion circuits will be discussed.