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continental shelf, a broad, reasonably shallow submarine terrace of continental crust creating the sheet of a continental landmass. The geology of continent shelves is often comparable to the of the adjacent exposed portion of the continent, and also most shelves have a tenderness rolling topography referred to as ridge and also swale. Continent shelves make up about 8 percent that the entire area spanned by oceans.

Structure

A continental shelf commonly extends indigenous the coast to depths of 100–200 metres (330–660 feet). It is tenderness inclined seaward at an mean slope of around 0.1°. In nearly all instances, it end at its seaward edge v an abrupt drop called the shelf break. Listed below this lies the continental slope, a lot steeper ar that normally merges v a ar of the ocean floor called the continental rise at a depth of about 4,000 to 5,000 metres (13,000 come 16,500 feet). A couple of continental margins—such together those turn off the Mediterranean coastline of France and at Porcupine Bank, off the western coastline of Ireland—do not have a sharply characterized break in slope but rather keep a generally convex shape to the seafloor.


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The average width of continental shelves is about 65 kilometres (40 miles). Virtually everywhere the shelves represent just a extension of the continent landmass in ~ the s margins. Accordingly, they are narrow, rough, and also steep turn off mountainous coasts but large and comparatively level offshore from plains. The shelf follow me the such as mountain western shore of the unified States, for example, is narrow, measure only about 32 km (20 miles) wide, whereas that fringing the eastern shore extends an ext than 120 kilometres (75 miles) in width. Exceptionally wide shelves occur off north Australia and also Argentina. The world’s biggest continental shelf extends 1,500 kilometres (about 930 miles) native the shore of Siberia right into the Arctic Ocean.

Continental shelves space usually covered with a class of sand, silts, and also silty muds. Their surfaces exhibit part relief, featuring small hills and also ridges that alternating with shallow depressions and valleylike troughs. In a couple of cases, steep-walled V-shaped submarine canyons cut deeply into both the shelf and the slope below.


Origin

American oceanographer Donald J.P. Swift has called continental shelves “palimpsests,” parchment writing tablet computers upon which stories are written after each previous writing has actually been erased. Each brand-new stand of sea level “writes” a new story of precipitate on the shelf after ~ the ahead episode has been erased by the climb or fall that preceded it, yet with some traces of the previous environment of deposition or critical erosional event remaining. The “eraser” is the surf, a high-energy force that erodes and also reworks everything as it overcome over, winnowing out the finer-than-sand-sized sediment and also leaving the coarser material behind. An construed seismic line shows the complicated array of networks (eroded and then filled), old deltaic deposits, old erosional surfaces, and also winnowed sand body that make up the continent shelf southwest of Cape mountain Blas top top the panhandle that Florida.

How the above processes affect any certain margin depends on its tectonic setup and the dimension of the rivers that drain into it. On continent shelves backed by high mountain ranges, such together the Pacific shore of North and also South America, the difference between high and low sea-level stands may be complicated to detect, gift one of degree perhaps noticeable only by marginally boosted sedimentation rates throughout lowstands, or intervals of diminished sea level. In many ways, continent shelves top top tectonically energetic margins at present sea level approximate lowstands top top trailing-edge, or passive, margins.

When sea level is lower on a trailing-edge shelf that has no surrounding high mountains, such as the Atlantic shore of north America, rivers space rejuvenated. In other words, your base level is lowered and also they start to erode their beds, carrying sediment native the continent throughout the former continental shelf that is currently exposed and depositing it in ~ the new coast. When sea level falls below the shelf break, the coast lies on the continental slope. Together sea level rises again top top tectonically stable or sinking shelves, tiny and medium-sized flow mouths drown and estuaries form, trapping the sediment within them and also starving the shelves. In these cases, sediment because that the shelf is primarily created by erosion that the coastline as the surf zone advancements landward with climbing sea level. Fine-grained material is winnowed out, to be one of two people deposited ago in the estuaries or brought in procedures by advective processes throughout the shelf to the deeper water beyond. Together a result, continent shelf surfaces on trailing-edge margins into which no huge rivers flow are veneered through a sand paper lying end a complex of enlarge deposits, few of which peek through the surface as outcrops—vestiges the an previously story composed on the palimpsest. Big rivers that drain a large, high continent, such as the Mississippi, space able to save pace with rising sea level and also deliver sufficient sediment to store an estuary from forming, and, at a high stillstand choose that the the present, also fill their entire shelf area. (For a summary of contemporary deposits the this type, see river: Deltas.)

For countless years after civilization War II, the period when plenty of of the world’s continental shelves were very first described in detail, it was believed that the sand shop on continent shelves to be “relict,” store left stranded by a greater sea level native the higher-energy routine of the surf zone that passed over them possibly as lot as a couple of thousand years before. Geophysical investigations of the shelf area because the mid-1970s have revealed the visibility of many types of sand waves and ripple point out in seafloor sediments that display submerged continent shelf sediments to it is in constantly undergoing reworking and also erosion. Together scientific expertise of the physical processes that impact continental shelves increased, the was uncovered that currents collection up by big winter storms, monsoons, and hurricanes and also typhoons room reworking the bottom through winnowing out the fine-grained materials and carrying them either ago into the estuaries or past the shelf break, where they are shed from the system.

In short, the sort of sediment the covers the surface ar of a continent shelf is identified by the interplay amongst the tectonic setting, the dimension of the rivers the empty into it (size based upon how lot sediment lock carry), and also the wave energy that affect it, simply as is the situation with continental margins in general. Shelves such together that of western Florida that have been reduced off indigenous clastic intake (that is, sediments composed chiefly of quartz and clay minerals obtained from erosion that the continent) may be spanned with carbonate sediments. In part cases, as in the archipelago of The Bahamas, the carbonate shelf, dubbed a bank, is cut off indigenous a continental resource by deep water. Continent shelves v rivers that bring sediments native the continents to the shelf and beyond just at lowstands that sea level and also those that drainpipe mountainous locations on high-energy coasts are conquered by quartz sands. In addition, shelves through rivers that drain huge continental areas and carry sufficient sediment to save abreast of sea-level rise or overcome ambient wave-energy problems will accumulate muddy sediment deposits out throughout their surfaces.

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Since the 1970s an increasing number of investigators have actually sought to explain the origin of continental shelves and their related structures in regards to plate tectonics. Follow to this theory, the shelves the the Pacific Ocean, because that example, developed as the leading edge of continent margins on lithospheric plates the terminate one of two people at fracture area (sites where 2 such bowl slide previous each other) or in ~ subduction zones (sites where among the colliding key plunges into the underlying partially molten asthenosphere). Shelves the such origin tend to be steep, deformed, and also covered by a thin layer that erosional debris. The Atlantic continental shelves, on the various other hand, show tiny or no tectonic deformation and bear a thick veneer the sedimentary material. They are thought to be remnants that the rolling edges that the substantial plates that split apart and also receded many millions that years ago to kind the Atlantic basin. Together the edges of the plates progressively contracted and subsided, huge amounts that sand, silts, and also mud from the continents settled and accumulated along their seaward side.