Geology of the Pacific Ocean

The Pacific Ocean evolved in the Mesozoic from the Panthalassic Ocean, which had formed when Rodinia rifted apart around 750 Ma. The first ocean floor which is part of the current Pacific Plate began 160 Ma to the west of the central Pacific and subsequently developed into the largest oceanic plate on Earth.[1]

The Pacific is ringed by many volcanoes and oceanic trenches

The East Pacific Rise near Easter Island is the fastest spreading mid-ocean ridge, with a spreading rate of over 15 cm/yr.[2] The Pacific Plate moves generally towards the northwest at between 7 and 11 cm/yr while the Juan De Fuca Plate has an east-northeasterly movement of some 4 cm/yr.[3]


Birth of the Pacific Plate 180 million years ago

In the Early Jurassic, the supercontinent Pangaea was surrounded by the superocean Panthalassa, the ocean floor of which was composed of the Izanagi, Farallon and, Phoenix plates.[4] These three plates were joined at a migrating, or unstable, ridge-ridge-ridge (RRR) triple junction from which the Pacific Plate began to grow 190 million years ago in an area east of the Mariana Trench; this area, known as the Pacific Triangle, is the oldest part of the Pacific Plate and therefore the oldest ocean floor of the Pacific. Spreading laterally from this triangle are the Hawaiian, Japanese, and Phoenix magnetic lineations, the earliest traces of how the Pacific Plate began to grow as a RRR triple junction fell apart into three triple junctions. Virtually all of the three Panthalassic plates have now been subducted beneath surrounding continents but their spreading rates have been preserved in the magnetic lineations around the Pacific Triangle.[5]

In the North Pacific, magnetic anomalies south of the Aleutian Islands, indicate the presence of a now almost completely subducted tectonic plate, known as the Kula Plate, which probably existed from the Late Cretaceous to the Eocene (c. 83–40 Ma). This plate probably broke off the Farallon Plate, and when subduction in the North Pacific shifted from Siberia to the Aleutian Trench c. 50 Ma, spreading ceased between the Kula plate and the Pacific Plate.[6]

The Pacific Plate kept growing and lineations south of the Pacific Triangle indicates the Pacific-Phoenix ridge remained a simple N-S trending spreading system 156–120 Ma. Following the formation and break-up of the Ontong Java-Hikurangi-Manihiki large igneous province 120 Ma, however, the Phoenix Plate broke into several smaller tectonic plates. The complexity of the Mid-Pacific and Magellan lineations indicate the presence of a series of microplates around the Pacific-Phoenix-Farallon triple junction.[7]

The northern part of the Farallon was subducted under North America while its southern section, together with the Phoenix Plate, was subducted under South America and the Antarctic.

During the late Tertiary period, the Farallon plate broke up, leaving the Juan de Fuca Plate in the north, the Cocos Plate off today's Central America, and the Nazca and Phoenix Plates in the southern Pacific.[8][9]

Charles Darwin proposed a theory that explained the existence of reefs by means of slow subsidence of the ocean floor. His theories have been verified and expanded in the development of plate tectonics.[10]

Geological origins of the Pacific islandsEdit

The islands of the Pacific have developed in a number of ways. Some have originated as chains of volcanic islands on the tectonic plates either as a result of mantle plumes or by fracture propagation. Atolls have developed in tropical waters when, after volcanos sink, coral growth results in reefs as evidenced by the Cook Islands. Coral reefs can develop into islands over a submerged extinct volcano following uplift as in Makatea and Rennell Island in the Solomon Archipelago which have steep coral cliffs over 100 metres high.[11]

The Pacific Plate emigrates northeast towards extensive subduction trenches. South of Japan, the Izu-Bonin and Mariana island arcs (IBM) formed in front of a clockwise rotating Philippine Sea Plate. The IBM trenches began to grow in length c. 40 million years ago, opening back-arc basins in the Philippine Sea. Between 30 and 17 Mya, the old age of the subducting Pacific ocean floor (110-130 Ma) resulted in a very fast trench migration and new back-arc basins opening behind the trenches.[12]

The ocean floor of the Pacific Ocean is composed of nine oceanic tectonic plates, all located in the southeast where the East Pacific Rise separates the Pacific Plate from the Antarctic, Juan Fernández, Nasca, Easter, Galápagos, Cocos, Rivera, Juan de Fuca plates.[13] In the western and southwestern Pacific continental blocks and back-arc basins form one of the most complex regions on earth stretching from Japan to New Zealand.[14]

Plate movements have also caused fragments of continental crust to be rotated away from landmasses so as to form islands. Zealandia which broke off from Gondwana 70 million years ago with the spreading of the Tasman Sea, has since resulted in island protrusions such as New Zealand and New Caledonia. Related causes of island formation include obduction and subduction at convergent plate boundaries. Malaita and Ulawa in the Solomon Islands are the result of obduction while the effects of subduction can be seen in the formation of volcanic island arcs such as the Aleutian Arc off Alaska and the Kermadec-Tonga Subduction Zone north of New Zealand.[11]

Andesite lineEdit

The andesite line, a zone of intense volcanic and seismic activity, is a major regional distinction in the Pacific. The petrologic boundary separates the deeper mafic igneous rock of the Central Pacific Basin from the partially submerged continental areas of felsic igneous rock on its margins.[15] The andesite line follows the western edge of the islands off California and passes south of the Aleutian arc, along the eastern edge of the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Kuril Islands, Japan, the Mariana Islands, the Solomon Islands, and New Zealand's North Island.[16][17]

The dissimilarity continues northeastward along the western edge of the Andes Cordillera along South America to Mexico, returning then to the islands off California. Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, New Guinea, and New Zealand lie outside the andesite line.

Outside of the andesite line, volcanism is explosive; the Pacific Ring of Fire is the world's foremost belt of explosive volcanism. The Ring of Fire is named after the several hundred active volcanoes that sit above the various subduction zones. In 2009, the deepest undersea eruption ever recorded occurred at the West Mata submarine volcano, a mile beneath the ocean, close to the Tonga-Kermadec Trench, within the Ring of Fire;[18] it was filmed by the US Jason robotic submersible which descended over 1,100 metres (3,600 ft).[19] The Pacific Ocean is the only ocean which is mostly bounded by subduction zones; only the Antarctic and Australian coasts have no nearby subduction zones.


In March and April 2008, a series or swarm of moderate earthquakes occurred both near and within the Blanco Fracture Zone. The swarm began on 30 March when over 600 measurable tremors began occurring north of the zone within the Juan de Fuca Plate.[20] A decade earlier, in January 1998, another swarm was detected at Axial Seamount in the Juan de Fuca Ridge.[21] At the time of its occurrence, scientists were not aware that the series of faults in this plate even existed.[22] In a remote region of the central Pacific Ocean, at the southeastern section of the Gilbert Islands, a major swarm of intraplate earthquakes occurred between December 1981 and March 1983, with no prior seismicity having been reported in this region previously.[23] Another swarm was detected on the Queen Charlotte Islands fracture zone in August–September 1967.[24]


Guyots and seamountsEdit

Seamount chains and hotspotsEdit

The Pacific Ocean contains several long seamount chains, formed by hotspot volcanism. These include the Hawaiian–Emperor seamount chain, the Tasmantid Seamount Chain, the Lord Howe Seamount Chain and the Louisville Ridge.

Arcs and beltsEdit

Faults and fracture zonesEdit

Underwater ridges and plateausEdit

Trenches and troughsEdit





  1. ^ Neall & Trewick 2008, Abstract
  2. ^ "Understanding plate motions". USGS. Retrieved 26 June 2013.
  3. ^ "Plate Tectonics", Pacific Northwest Seismic Network. Retrieved 26 June 2013.
  4. ^ Boschman & Van Hinsbergen 2016, Abstract
  5. ^ Boschman & Van Hinsbergen 2016, Introduction, pp 1–2
  6. ^ Seton et al. 2012, Kula plate, pp. 231–232
  7. ^ Seton et al. 2012, Phoenix plate, pp. 235–238
  8. ^ Glasby, G.P. (1989). Antarctic Sector of the Pacific. Elsevier. pp. 131–. ISBN 978-0-08-087089-2.
  9. ^ Foulger, Gillian R.; Jurdy, Donna M. (2007). Plates, Plumes, and Planetary Processes. Geological Society of America. pp. 479–. ISBN 978-0-8137-2430-0.
  10. ^ Waters, H. (February 2015). "Charles Darwin's Ocean Upwelling". Smithonian Institution. Retrieved 7 March 2021.
  11. ^ a b Neall & Trewick 2008, Island origins, pp. 3295–3298
  12. ^ van der Hilst & Seno 1993, Plate-tectonic reconstruction and the history of subduction, p 399
  13. ^ Seton et al. 2012, Pacific Ocean and Panthalassa, p. 225
  14. ^ Seton et al. 2012, Western Pacific and SE Asian back-arc basins, p. 248; SW Pacific Back-arc basins and marginal seas, pp. 248–250
  15. ^ Trent, D. D.; Hazlett, Richard; Bierman, Paul (2010). Geology and the Environment. Cengage Learning. p. 133. ISBN 978-0-538-73755-5.
  16. ^ Mueller-Dombois, Dieter (1998). Vegetation of the Tropical Pacific Islands. Springer. p. 13. ISBN 978-0-387-98313-4.
  17. ^ Lal, Brij Vilash; Fortune, Kate (January 2000). The Pacific Islands: An Encyclopedia. University of Hawaii Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-8248-2265-1.
  18. ^ Sandell, Clayton (17 December 2009). "Deepest Undersea Volcanic Eruption Ever Seen". ABC News. Retrieved 26 June 2013.
  19. ^ Amos, Jonathan (18 December 2009). "Deepest volcano caught on Pacific Ocean video – Amazing video has been obtained in the Pacific Ocean of the deepest undersea eruption ever recorded". BBC. Retrieved 26 June 2013.
  20. ^ "2008 Oregon Offshore Earthquakes". NOAA. Retrieved 23 June 2013.
  21. ^ Dziak, Robert P.; Fox, Christopher G. (1 December 1999). "The January 1998 Earthquake swarm at Axial Volcano, Juan de Fuca Ridge: Hydroacoustic evidence of seafloor volcanic activity". Geophysical Research Letters. 26 (23): 3429–3432. Bibcode:1999GeoRL..26.3429D. doi:10.1029/1999gl002332.
  22. ^ Floyd, Mark (26 October 2009). "OSU researchers find cause of 2008 offshore earthquake swarms". Corvallis Gazette Times. Retrieved 26 June 2013.
  23. ^ Lay, Thorne; Okal, Emile (1983). "The Gilbert Islands (Republic of Kiribati) earthquake swarm of 1981–1983" (PDF). Physics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors. 33 (4): 284–303. Bibcode:1983PEPI...33..284L. doi:10.1016/0031-9201(83)90046-8.
  24. ^ Wetmiller, Robert J. (December 1971). "An earthquake swarm on the Queen Charlotte Islands Fracture Zone". Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America. 61 (6): 1489–1505.