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What is the Continental Rise?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The continental rise is an underwater feature found between the continental slope and the abyssal plain. This feature can be found all around the world, and it represents the final stage in the boundary between continents and the deepest part of the ocean. The environment in the continental rise is quite unique, and many oceanographers study it extensively in the hopes of learning more about the ocean and geologic history.

Before delving into specifics, it can help to have a quick overview of the major features of the ocean floor, starting with the continental shelf, a relatively shallow area of water which forms a transition between the elevated land of the continents and the open ocean. At a certain depth, the continental shelf begins to drop sharply, forming a feature called the continental slope. Unlike the continental shelf, the continental slope is rather steep, and geologists suspect that it may mark an earlier sea level in Earth's history.

At the bottom of the continental slope, one will find the continental rise, an underwater hill composed of tons of accumulated sediments. Beyond this stretches the abyssal plain, an extremely flat area of the sea floor which is also incredibly deep. The abyssal plain hosts many unique life forms which are uniquely adapted to survival in its cold, high pressure, and dark conditions. The flatness of the abyssal plain is interrupted by massive underwater mountain chains near the tectonic boundaries of the Earth's plates.

The formation of the continental rise is a constant and very slow process. As rivers and streams travel over land, they pick up sediment, silt, and an assortment of other material, which is gradually carried out to sea. Some of these sediments settle on the continental shelf, but others drift down the continental slope to form the continental rise. The continental rise is often very nutrient rich, because of the sediments that it contains, and it may attract an assortment of undersea creatures looking for snacks.

These sea creatures, in turn, contribute more sediments. Over millennia, the continental rise takes on the shape of a dense wedge of material which has settled at the bottom of the continental slope, much like detritus which piles up at the base of a cliff. The feature is named because it creates a characteristic sudden rise of the ocean floor which is very distinctive on the radar screens used by ships. It alerts ships to the fact that they are approaching the continental shelf, suggesting that land cannot be too far away.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon1006428 — On Mar 11, 2022

Where can I find a world map highlighting each continent's continental shelves, continental slopes, and continental rises?

By anon241405 — On Jan 18, 2012

Well I think this article is great and wish they would tell me more about the life down in the depths. Does anyone know what kind of life is down there?

By BostonIrish — On Feb 08, 2011

The ocean depths have become a stunning mystery to much of mankind over the millennia. Semitic thinkers associated the sea with death, and various demons and ghosts were believed to dwell in the bottom of the ocean. Even seafaring Europeans recognized the bottom of the sea as a scary place, with storms shattering and destroying fleets of people in a single instance. This did not stop them, however, from exploring and dominating it.

By widget2010 — On Jan 28, 2011

If I had learned more about the continental shelf and the ocean floor in biology, I might have been more interested. I didn't get past the second year of it though, and all we really learned about the ocean was that it was large, there were many species, and most of them were tiny. That was about it.

I suppose you would learn more of this in geology, but considering that the sea creatures influence the building of the shelf, it seems both would cover some of it.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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