Continental breakup and the transition to seafloor spreading is characterized by extensional faulting, thinning of the lithosphere and, at magmatic margins, voluminous intrusive and extrusive magmatism1, 2, 3, 4. It is difficult to discriminate between different mechanisms of extension and magmatism at ancient continental margins because the continent–ocean transition is buried beneath thick layers of volcanic and sedimentary rocks5, 6 and the tectonic activity that characterized breakup has ceased. Instead, the timing of these mechanisms is inferred from theoretical models or from the geological record preserved at the fully developed, ancient rifted margins1, 5, 7, 8. Ongoing rifting in Ethiopia offers a unique opportunity to address these problems because it exposes subaerially the transition between continental rifting towards the south and seafloor spreading further northward. Here we synthesize constraints on the spatial and temporal evolution of magmatism and extension in Ethiopia. We show that although intrusion of magma maintains crustal thickness during the early stages of the continent–ocean transition, subsidence of the margin below sea level, and eruption of voluminous basalt flows, is initiated by late-stage thinning of the heavily intruded, weakened plate just before the onset of seafloor spreading. We thus conclude that faulting, stretching and magma intrusion are each important, but at different times during breakup.
At a glance
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