South China Sea documents the transition from wide continental rift to continental break up

Hongdan Deng, Jianye Ren, Xiong Pang, Patrice F. Rey, Ken McClay, Ian Watkinson, Jingyun Zheng, Pan Luo

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During extension, the continental lithosphere thins and breaks up, forming either wide or narrow rifts depending on the thermo-mechanical state of the extending lithosphere. Wide continental rifts, which can reach 1,000 km across, have been extensively studied in the North American Cordillera and in the Aegean domain. Yet, the evolutionary process from wide continental rift to continental breakup remains enigmatic due to the lack of seismically resolvable data on the distal passive margin and an absence of onshore natural exposures. Here, we show that Eocene extension across the northern margin of the South China Sea records the transition between a wide continental rift and highly extended (<15 km) continental margin. On the basis of high-resolution seismic data, we document the presence of dome structures, a corrugated and grooved detachment fault, and subdetachment deformation involving crustal-scale nappe folds and magmatic intrusions, which are coeval with supradetachment basins. The thermal and mechanical weakening of this broad continental domain allowed for the formation of metamorphic core complexes, boudinage of the upper crust and exhumation of middle/lower crust through detachment faulting. The structural architecture of the northern South China Sea continental margin is strikingly similar to the broad continental rifts in the North American Cordillera and in the Aegean domain, and reflects the transition from wide rift to continental breakup.
Original languageEnglish
Article number4583
Pages (from-to)1-9
Number of pages9
JournalNature Communications
Publication statusPublished - 11 Sept 2020

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