Abyssal Hills and Abyssal Plains

  • Marie-Helene Cormier
  • Heather Sloan
Part of the Springer Geology book series (SPRINGERGEOL)


Abyssal hills and abyssal plains makeup the majority of the seafloor, and thus cover vast amount of the Earth’s surface. Abyssal hills form in the young oceanic lithosphere near mid-ocean ridges. These elongate, ridge-parallel hills and intervening valleys provide the characteristic fabric of the recently accreted and sparsely sedimented seafloor. Near-bottom investigations document that abyssal hills owe most of their morphology to extensional faulting. Their tectonically-driven growth continues as far as ~35 km from the spreading axis, thus defining a broader plate boundary zone within which the parting plates acquire their steady-state motion. Abyssal hill morphology is sensitive to key aspects of seafloor accretion, and thus preserves accurate records of changing spreading rate, lithospheric thermal structure, and plate boundary geometry. In general, the slower the spreading rate, the larger their dimensions are. This relationship is modulated by regional variations in the thermal structure of the lithosphere, such as may be produced by proximity to hot spots, cold spots, or transform faults and non-transform ridge offsets. As divergent plate motion rafts the aging, subsiding oceanic lithosphere away from the mid-ocean ridge, abyssal hills are generally slowly buried beneath layers of sediments. However, extreme variability in sedimentation rates means that the burial of abyssal hills by sediments is not predictably related to the age of the lithosphere. In fact, the rugged fabric of the abyssal hills is transformed into the remarkably flat surface of the abyssal plains only where oceanic basins are within reach of the fast-moving turbidity currents that originate along the continental margins.



We are grateful for the public availability of multibeam bathymetric data through the National Geophysical Data Center ( and GeoMapapp ( These bathymetric data have been processed with MB-System and all figures have been generated with GMT, both freely available software (Caress et al. 2015; Wessel et al. 2013). We thank D. Sauter for the gridded bathymetric data of the Southwest Indian Ridge, T. Fujiwara for the gridded bathymetric data of the Japan Trench, a dataset compiled by the Japan Oceanographic Data Center and JAMSTEC, and D.K. Blackman for review.


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© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Graduate School of OceanographyUniversity of Rhode IslandNarragansettUSA
  2. 2.Lehman CollegeCity University of New YorkBronxUSA

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