Sea Floor Magnetism

This page is authored by Kyle Gray, University of Northern Iowa
University of Northern Iowa, Earth Science
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Initial Publication Date: May 21, 2012 | Reviewed: August 4, 2022


This earth science activity allows students to simulate the collection of magnetic polarity data across two mid-ocean ridges. Prior to class, the instructor arranges bar magnets in a symmetric pattern to simulate changes in polarity in the sea floor and covers the magnets so students must use a compass to remotely gather the data without directly observing the magnets themselves.
Students then graph the data and identify regions of normal and reversed polarity. The data are also plotted onto a profile of each mid-ocean ridge. Finally, students use the data they collected to draw inferences about sea floor spreading at mid-ocean ridges and calculate the average spreading rate for the last 780,000 years.

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Learning Goals

This lesson has goals related to geoscience content, the nature of science, and quantitative analysis.

Geoscience Content
  • Students understand that the sea floor basement rocks contain remnant magnetic data that can be used to infer events in the geologic past
  • Students understand that the patterns of magnetic reversals are symmetric about the axis of the mid-ocean ridge
  • Students understand that these magnetic polarity data can be used to determine rates of plate movement

  • Nature of Science
  • Students understand how geophysical techniques allow geoscientists to collect data from the sea floor without physically visiting the sea floor
  • Students understand that claims about events that happened in the geologic past (like magnetic reversals) are reliably based on present-day observations
  • Students understand that not all scientific investigations require a controlled experiment

  • Quantitative Analysis
  • Students use mathematics to describe their observations and provide evidence to support their claims.
  • Methods of Geoscience

    By simulating a well-known series of studies, students will experience on inductive approach to science rather than a linear, deductive methodology.

    Context for Use

    This activity is designed for an Earth science content course for pre-service elementary education majors. This lab-based courses uses minimal lecture to teach the target concepts. This activity would be part of the plate tectonics unit. This activity could be adapted to a variety of educational settings including major's courses in tectonics or oceanography, introductory geology and Earth science courses, or possibly high school Earth science courses.

    Description and Teaching Materials

    A materials list and description of the activity are available in the following attachments.
    Pre-Activity Reading (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 34kB May21 12)
    Student Handout (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 46kB May21 12)
    Activity Description (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 17kB May21 12)

    Teaching Notes and Tips

    Unless you are specifically teaching about the geomagnetic polarity timescale, the actual pattern of normal and reversed polarities does not matter as long as the pattern is symmetric about the axis of the mid-ocean ridge. The pattern presented here has the axes near the center of the profile. For added difficulty, one can offset the axis so it is not in the center of the profile.

    Students may also have difficulty understanding that azimuth directions greater than 180 degrees are the same as directions less than 180 degrees. (That is readings of East and West are the same for these purposes.)

    Do NOT show the students the actual pattern of the magnets. This simulates actual science in that no one can actually see the stripes on the seafloor.


    Students answer questions on the attached worksheet and discuss the material in class. A later exam contains questions on seafloor magnetic polarities and divergent plate boundaries.

    As an alternate assessment, students could write up their findings as a scientific report and then compare their reports to those of papers from the mid 1960s.

    References and Resources

    The seafloor profiles were taken from Google Earth. For an extension activity, the students could look up the locations of these two ridges and note general observations regarding the topography of the seafloor. They could also generate their own seafloor profiles.