Two main hypotheses compete to explain the mid-Cretaceous global sea-level highstand: a massive pulse of oceanic crustal production that occurred during the Cretaceous Normal Superchron (CNS) and the “supercontinent breakup effect,” which resulted in the creation of the mid-Atlantic and Indian ocean ridges at the expense of subducting old ocean floor in the Tethys and the Pacific. We have used global oceanic paleo-age grids, including now subducted ocean floor and two alternative time scales, to test these hypotheses. Our models show that a high average seafloor spreading rate of 92 mm/a in the Early Cretaceous that decreased to 60 mm/a during the Tertiary, with peaks of 86 mm/a and 70 mm/a at 105 Ma and 75 Ma ago, respectively, correspond to the two observed sea-level highstands in the Cretaceous. Calculations using GTS2004 produce lower seafloor spreading rates during the same period and diminish the mid-Cretaceous spreading pulse. Global ridge lengths increased in the earliest Cretaceous but stayed relatively constant through time. However, we find that the average age of the ocean basins through time is only weakly dependent on the choice of time scale. The expansive mid- and Late Cretaceous epicontinental seas, coupled with warm climates and oxygen-poor water masses, were ultimately driven by the younger average age of the Cretaceous seafloor and faster seafloor spreading rather than a vast increase in mid-ocean ridge length due to the breakup of Pangea or solely by higher seafloor spreading rates, as suggested previously.

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