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Magma-compensated crustal thinning in continental rift zones


Continental rift zones are long, narrow tectonic depressions in the Earth’s surface where the entire lithosphere has been modified in extension1. Rifting can eventually lead to rupture of the continental lithosphere and creation of new oceanic lithosphere or, alternatively, lead to formation of wide sedimentary basins around failed rift zones. Conventional models of rift zones include three characteristic features: surface manifestation as an elongated topographic trough, Moho shallowing due to crustal thinning, and reduced seismic velocity in the uppermost mantle due to decompression melting or heating from the Earth’s interior2,3,4. Here we demonstrate that only the surface manifestation is observed at the Baikal rift zone, whereas the crustal and mantle characteristics can be ruled out by a new seismic profile across southern Lake Baikal in Siberia. Instead we observe a localized zone in the lower crust which has exceptionally high seismic velocity and is highly reflective. We suggest that the expected Moho uplift was compensated by magmatic intrusion into the lower crust, producing the observed high-velocity zone. This finding demonstrates a previously unknown role for magmatism in rifting processes with significant implications for estimation of stretching factors and modelling of sedimentary basins around failed rift structures.

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Figure 1: Shaded relief topographic map and tectonic setting.
Figure 2: Model of seismic compressional velocity along the seismic profile across the BRZ.
Figure 3: Seismic sections across southern Lake Baikal with 8.0 km s-1 reduction velocity, with superimposed calculated travel times for the model in Fig. 2 .
Figure 4: Three models for formation of the BRZ superimposed on the seismic velocity model.


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This study received support from the Carlsberg Foundation and the Danish Natural Science Research Council. The field work at Lake Baikal further received support from the Russian Academy of Sciences, Siberian Branch, and the Polish Academy of Sciences. The seismic instruments were provided by the University of Copenhagen and the Technical University of Vienna. We acknowledge discussions with R. S. White on melting processes, and comments received from I. Artemieva, I. Reid and W. Stratford on earlier versions of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to H. Thybo.

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Thybo, H., Nielsen, C. Magma-compensated crustal thinning in continental rift zones. Nature 457, 873–876 (2009).

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