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Facts about The Continental Shelf for Kids


Much of the continental shelf was exposed during glacial periods, but is now submerged under relatively shallow seas (known as shelf seas) and gulfs, and was almost similarly submerged during other interglacial periods.

  • The continental margin, between the continental shelf and the abyssal plain, comprises a steep continental slope followed by the flatter continental rise.
  • Sediment from the continent above cascades down the slope and accumulates as a pile of sediment at the base of the slope, called the continental rise.
  • Extending as far as 500 km from the slope, it consists of thick sediments deposited by turbidity currents from the shelf and slope.
  • Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the name continental shelf was given a legal definition as the stretch of the seabed adjacent to the shores of a particular country to which it belongs.
  • The width of the continental shelf varies considerably – it is not uncommon for an area to have virtually no shelf at all, particularly where the forward edge of an advancing oceanic plate dives beneath continental crust in an offshore subduction zone such as off the coast of Chile or the west coast of Sumatra.
  • Other familiar bodies of water that overlie continental shelves are the North Sea and the Persian Gulf.
  • Though the continental shelf is treated as a physiographic province of the ocean, it is not part of the deep ocean basin proper, but the flooded margins of the continent.
  • Below the slope is the continental rise, which finally merges into the deep ocean floor, the abyssal plain.
  • The character of the shelf changes dramatically at the shelf break, where the continental slope begins.
  • Sediments usually become increasingly fine with distance from the coast; sand is limited to shallow, wave-agitated waters, while silt and clays are deposited in quieter, deep water far offshore.
  • Though the shelves are usually fertile, if anoxic conditions prevail during sedimentation, the deposits may over geologic time become sources for fossil fuels.
  • Thus inhabited volcanic islands such as the Canaries, which have no actual continental shelf, nonetheless have a legal continental shelf, whereas uninhabitable islands have no shelf.