Studying how ocean basins formed

Missouri S&T may be hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean shore, but physical distance won’t prevent researchers here from studying how ocean basins were formed.


Four S&T researchers, led by Stephen Gao, professor of geophysics, will spend the next four years studying how continental rifts create ocean basins. They’ll use earthquake-detection equipment in Africa and field studies in the United States in their research, which is supported by an $873,880 grant from the National Science Foundation.
Gao and his colleagues will investigate how narrow continental rifts separated over time to create basins like the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea. They will study current rift valleys in Africa and in the southwestern U.S. The U.S. rift is located along the Rio Grande River.
“If the current trend continues for millions of years, there will be an ocean separating western and eastern Colorado, western and eastern New Mexico, and western Texas and northern Mexico,” says Gao. He adds that geologic history has its share of so-called failed rifts that did not become basins. They include the Reelfoot in southeast Missouri, where the New Madrid seismic zone is located.
A more short-term benefit of the study may be a better understanding of how oil and gas reserves form on continental shelves, where about 70 percent of the world’s hydrocarbons are found, Gao says.
In addition to working in the U.S., the S&T researchers will conduct field studies in Botswana, Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique.
“Fifty earthquake-detecting instruments called seismographs will be installed across the rifted valleys in Africa to image the deep structure of the Earth,” Gao says. “The techniques are similar to the methods doctors use to image the body.”
During the geophysical study in Africa, waves from earthquakes will be used to gather information. According to Gao, remote sensing data analysis and surface geology observations will also be conducted.
Working with Gao are Mohamed Abdelsalam and John Hogan, professor and associate professor of geology, and Kelly Liu, professor of geophysics.

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