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Abyssal Plain

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: 1,2-dibromoethane to Adrenergic

Abyssal plains are the vast, flat, sediment-covered areas of the deep ocean floor. They are the flattest, most featureless areas on the Earth, and have a slope of less than one foot of elevation difference for each thousand feet of distance. The lack of features is due to a thick blanket of sediment that covers most of the surface.

These flat abyssal plains occur at depths of over 6,500 ft (1,980 m) below sea level. They are underlain by the oceanic crust, which is predominantly basalt—a dark, fine-grained volcanic rock. Typically, the basalt is covered by layers of sediments, much of which is deposited by deep ocean turbidity currents (caused by the greater density of sediment-laden water), or biological materials, such as minute shells of marine plants and animals, that have "rained" down from the ocean's upper levels, or a mixture of both.

Other components of abyssal plain sediment include wind-blown dust, volcanic ash, chemical precipitates, and occasional meteorite fragments. Abyssal plains are often littered with nodules of manganese containing varying amounts of iron, nickel, cobalt, and copper. These pea- to potato-sized nodules form by direct precipitation of minerals from the seawater onto a bone or rock fragment. Currently, deposits of manganese nodules are not being mined from the sea bed, but it is possible that they could be collected and used in the future.

Of the 15 billion tons of river-carried clay, sand, and gravel that is washed into the oceans each year, only a fraction of this amount reaches the abyssal plains. The amount of biological sediments that reaches the bottom is similarly small. Thus, the rate of sediment accumulation on the abyssal plains is very slow, and in many areas, less than an inch of sediment accumulates per thousand years. Because of the slow rate of accumulation and the monotony of the topography, abyssal plains were once believed to be a stable, unchanging environment. However, deep ocean currents have been discovered that scour the ocean floor in places. Some currents have damaged trans-oceanic communication cables laid on these plains.

Although they are more common and widespread in the Atlantic and Indian ocean basins than in the Pacific, abyssal plains are found in all major ocean basins. Approximately 40% of our planet's ocean floor is covered by abyssal plains. The remainder of the ocean floor topography consists of hills, cone-shaped or flat-topped mountains, deep trenches, and mountain chains such as the mid-oceanic ridge systems.

The abyssal plains do not support a great abundance of aquatic life, though some species do survive in this relatively barren environment. Deep sea dredges have collected specimens of unusual-looking fish, worms, and clam-like creatures from these depths.

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