The subsidence histories of the Labrador and Nova Scotian rifted continental margins have been determined from biostratigraphic data for 11 deep exploratory wells off Nova Scotia, for five wells off Labrador, for three wells northeast of Newfoundland, and for one well off the northeast coast of the United States of America. The components of subsidence, due to sediment loading, and when possible due to loading by changes in eustatic sea level, were removed, leaving that part of the subsidence, the tectonic subsidence, caused by cooling of the lithosphere or by other deep seated processes. The thermal cooling model theoretically predicts a linear relationship between tectonic subsidence and t½, where t is the time since subsidence began. This relationship should be obeyed during the first tens of Ma of subsidence. The slope of this curve depends upon the temperature to which the crust and upper mantle were heated during the initial rifting stage and can be used to derive the temperature–time history within the sediments, the present temperature distribution, and geothermal gradient. The data show that the observed subsidence curves behave in accordance with the thermal cooling model, at least during the first 80 Ma after subsidence began and obey the equation y = 300(± 80)t1/2 m, where y is the tectonic subsidence. The slopes of the subsidence curves are similar for the Labrador Shelf, the Nova Scotian Shelf, and the shelf off the northeastern U.S.A. More rapid and variable subsidence occurs northeast of Newfoundland and this may be associated, in a way yet to be established, with the anomalous foundered continental crust near the Orphan Knoll and Flemish Cap micro-continents which lie close to this area. After about 80 Ma, the subsidence appears to depart from the linear t1/2 law in a manner similar to the subsidence curves for oceanic crust, but this is not well established by the data. The present temperatures and temperature gradients computed using the slope of the subsidence curves show good agreement with measured values; geothermal gradients of 17.5 °C km−1 and 26 °C km−1 are calculated off Nova Scotia and Labrador respectively, and mean values of about 23 °C km−1 are observed. The computed temperature–time history within the sediments was used to estimate values of vitrinite reflectance, an indicator of the degree of organic metamorphism. These values show reasonable agreement with the measured values and suggest that only the Upper Jurassic and Lower Cretaceous sediments off Nova Scotia and the Paleocene sediments off Labrador are sufficiently mature to be good sources of petroleum. The linear t1/2 behaviour of the subsidence, and the good agreement between predicted and observed temperatures support the contention that cooling is largely responsible for the observed tectonic subsidence. The similarity of results from different areas suggests that the usefulness of the method is not restricted to a particular geographical area and may be applied to other rifted continental margins. Comparisons between the subsidence rates, thermal histories, and crustal structure at rifted margins on a worldwide scale may provide insights concerning the processes controlling their development. The temperature–time histories of the sediments estimated from the subsidence may be useful in establishing the potential of a rifted margin area for petroleum generation when little other information is available.