Letter | Published:

How supercontinents and superoceans affect seafloor roughness

Nature volume 456, pages 938941 (18 December 2008) | Download Citation



Seafloor roughness varies considerably across the world’s ocean basins and is fundamental to controlling the circulation and mixing of heat in the ocean1 and dissipating eddy kinetic energy2. Models derived from analyses of active mid-ocean ridges suggest that ocean floor roughness depends on seafloor spreading rates3, with rougher basement forming below a half-spreading rate threshold of 30–35 mm yr-1 (refs 4, 5), as well as on the local interaction of mid-ocean ridges with mantle plumes or cold-spots6. Here we present a global analysis of marine gravity-derived roughness, sediment thickness, seafloor isochrons and palaeo-spreading rates7 of Cretaceous to Cenozoic ridge flanks. Our analysis reveals that, after eliminating effects related to spreading rate and sediment thickness, residual roughness anomalies of 5–20 mGal remain over large swaths of ocean floor. We found that the roughness as a function of palaeo-spreading directions and isochron orientations7 indicates that most of the observed excess roughness is not related to spreading obliquity, as this effect is restricted to relatively rare occurrences of very high obliquity angles (>45°). Cretaceous Atlantic ocean floor, formed over mantle previously overlain by the Pangaea supercontinent, displays anomalously low roughness away from mantle plumes and is independent of spreading rates. We attribute this observation to a sub-Pangaean supercontinental mantle temperature anomaly8 leading to slightly thicker than normal Late Jurassic and Cretaceous Atlantic crust9, reduced brittle fracturing and smoother basement relief. In contrast, ocean crust formed above Pacific superswells10, probably reflecting metasomatized lithosphere underlain by mantle at only slightly elevated temperatures11, is not associated with basement roughness anomalies. These results highlight a fundamental difference in the nature of large-scale mantle upwellings below supercontinents and superoceans, and their impact on oceanic crustal accretion.

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Author Contributions W.H.F.S. contributed to gravity field modelling and the downward continuation. P.W. created the seamount/LIP mask and performed major extensions to grdfilter to compute r.m.s. roughness on aMercator-projected grid. W.R.R. was an initiator of the project who initially explored the effect of both rate and spreading obliquity on roughness. R.D.M. was an initiator of this project, and PhD supervisor of J.M.W., who conceived the idea that supercontinent and superocean effects may drive large-scale roughness anomalies. He and W.R.R. explored workflows to analyse the dependence of seafloor roughness on factors other than spreading rate, and created initial roughness grids, which were improved by the approach implemented by J.M.W. J.M.W. executed the entire project, and combined the various existing ideas and program fragments together into a coherent workflow that allowed systematic testing of ideas and quantification of the supercontinent/superocean hypothesis.

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Author notes

    • Joanne M. Whittaker

    Present address: GETECH, Kitson House, Elmete Hall, Elmete Lane, Leeds LS8 2LJ, UK.


  1. Earthbyte Group, School of Geosciences, Building F09, The University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales 2006, Australia

    • Joanne M. Whittaker
    •  & R. Dietmar Müller
  2. Ifremer, Centre de Brest, Département des Géosciences Marines, BP 70, 29280 Plouzané, France

    • Walter R. Roest
  3. Department of Geology and Geophysics, SOEST, University of Hawaii at Mānoa, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822, USA

    • Paul Wessel
  4. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Silver Spring, Maryland 20910, USA

    • Walter H. F. Smith


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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Joanne M. Whittaker.

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