Oceanic trench

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The oceanic trenches are hemispheric-scale long but narrow topographic depressions of the sea floor. They are also the deepest parts of the ocean floor.

Trenches define one of the most important natural boundaries on the Earth’s solid surface: the one between two lithospheric plates. There are three types of lithospheric plate boundaries: divergent (where lithosphere and oceanic crust is created at mid-ocean ridges), convergent (where one lithospheric plate sinks beneath another and returns to the mantle), and transform (where two lithospheric plates slide past each other).

Trenches are a distinctive morphological feature of plate boundaries. Along convergent plate boundaries, plates move together at rates that vary from a few mm to over ten cm per year. A trench marks the position at which the flexed, subducting slab begins to descend beneath another lithospheric slab. Trenches are generally parallel to a volcanic island arc, and about 200 km from a volcanic arc. Oceanic trenches typically extend 3 to 4 km (1.9 to 2.5 mi) below the level of the surrounding oceanic floor. The greatest ocean depth to be sounded is in the Challenger Deep of the Mariana Trench, at a depth of 10,911 m (35,798 ft) below sea level. Oceanic lithosphere moves into trenches at a global rate of about a tenth of a square metre per second.


Geographic distribution

There are about 50,000 km of convergent plate margins, mostly around the Pacific Ocean—the reason for the reference “Pacific-type” margin—but they are also in the eastern Indian Ocean, with relatively short convergent margin segments in the Atlantic Ocean and in the Mediterranean Sea. Trenches are sometimes buried and lack bathymetric expression, but the fundamental structures that these represent mean that the great name should also be applied here. This applies to Cascadia, Makran, southern Lesser Antilles, and Calabrian trenches. Trenches along with volcanic arcs and zones of earthquakes that dip under the volcanic arc as deeply as 700 km are diagnostic of convergent plate boundaries and their deeper manifestations, subduction zones. Trenches are related to but distinguished from continental collision zones (like that between India and Asia to form the Himalaya), where continental crust enters the subduction zone. When buoyant continental crust enters a trench, subduction eventually stops and the convergent plate margin becomes a collision zone. Features analogous to trenches are associated with collisions zones; these are sediment-filled foredeeps referred to as peripheral foreland basins, such as that which the Ganges River and Tigris-Euphrates rivers flow along.

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