Letter | Published:

Abrupt plate accelerations shape rifted continental margins

Nature volume 536, pages 201204 (11 August 2016) | Download Citation

Abstract

Rifted margins are formed by persistent stretching of continental lithosphere until breakup is achieved. It is well known that strain-rate-dependent processes control rift evolution1,2, yet quantified extension histories of Earth’s major passive margins have become available only recently. Here we investigate rift kinematics globally by applying a new geotectonic analysis technique to revised global plate reconstructions. We find that rifted margins feature an initial, slow rift phase (less than ten millimetres per year, full rate) and that an abrupt increase of plate divergence introduces a fast rift phase. Plate acceleration takes place before continental rupture and considerable margin area is created during each phase. We reproduce the rapid transition from slow to fast extension using analytical and numerical modelling with constant force boundary conditions. The extension models suggest that the two-phase velocity behaviour is caused by a rift-intrinsic strength–velocity feedback, which can be robustly inferred for diverse lithosphere configurations and rheologies. Our results explain differences between proximal and distal margin areas3 and demonstrate that abrupt plate acceleration during continental rifting is controlled by the nonlinear decay of the resistive rift strength force. This mechanism provides an explanation for several previously unexplained rapid absolute plate motion changes, offering new insights into the balance of plate driving forces through time.

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Acknowledgements

S.B. was funded by the Marie Curie International Outgoing Fellowship 326115, the German Research Foundation Priority Program 1375 SAMPLE, and the Helmholtz Young Investigators Group CRYSTALS. S.E.W., N.P.B. and R.D.M. were supported by Science and Industry Endowment Fund project RP 04-174 and Australian Research Council grant IH130200012. Simulations were performed on the cluster facilities of the German Research Centre for Geosciences. Figures were created using matplotlib, Tecplot and Matlab. We thank X. Qin and J. Cannon for their efforts developing the GPlates portal and pyGPlates infrastructure.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, Telegrafenberg, 14473 Potsdam, Germany

    • Sascha Brune
  2. EarthByte Research Group, School of Geosciences, 2006 University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia

    • Sascha Brune
    • , Simon E. Williams
    • , Nathaniel P. Butterworth
    •  & R. Dietmar Müller

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Contributions

S.B. and S.E.W. conceived the plate tectonic analysis. S.B. designed and conducted the thermo-mechanical modelling. S.B., S.E.W. and N.P.B. developed the pyGPlates workflow. S.B., S.E.W. and R.D.M. discussed and integrated the results. The paper was written by S.B. with contributions from all authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sascha Brune.

The rift velocity database is accessible via an open-access virtual-globe web interface through http://portal.gplates.org/cesium/?view=rift_v.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks S. Buiter and R. Granot for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Extended data

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Tables 1-2 and Supplementary References. Supplementary Table 1 lists the finite poles of rotations used to create reconstructions of the eight rifts considered in the study. Supplementary Table 2 contains the full list of references for seismic data displayed in Extended Data Figure 5. This data was used to define the COB polygons of this study.

Zip files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Data

    This zipped file contains the global rotation file and the plate polygons used in the publication.

Videos

  1. 1.

    South Atlantic Rift

    Rift velocities are plotted as coloured circles and represent the full rate of extension. They are evaluated at overlapping plate polygons (black). Rift-ward polygon limits are defined through present-day boundaries between continental and oceanic crust (COBs). Grey arrows depict relative plate velocities in the plate interior. Grey lines show present-day coastlines and tectonic features moving with the plates. Snapshots of this animation are shown in Figure 1 and Extended Data Figure 1.

  2. 2.

    Central North Atlantic Rift

    Rift velocities are plotted as coloured circles and represent the full rate of extension. They are evaluated at overlapping plate polygons (black). Rift-ward polygon limits are defined through present-day boundaries between continental and oceanic crust (COBs). Grey arrows depict relative plate velocities in the plate interior. Grey lines show present-day coastlines and tectonic features moving with the plates. Snapshots of this animation are shown in Extended Data Figure 1.

  3. 3.

    North America - Iberia Rift

    Rift velocities are plotted as coloured circles and represent the full rate of extension. They are evaluated at overlapping plate polygons (black). Rift-ward polygon limits are defined through present-day boundaries between continental and oceanic crust (COBs). Grey arrows depict relative plate velocities in the plate interior. Grey lines show present-day coastlines and tectonic features moving with the plates. Snapshots of this animation are shown in Extended Data Figure 2.

  4. 4.

    Australia - Antarctica

    Rift velocities are plotted as coloured circles and represent the full rate of extension. They are evaluated at overlapping plate polygons (black). Rift-ward polygon limits are defined through present-day boundaries between continental and oceanic crust (COBs). Grey arrows depict relative plate velocities in the plate interior. Grey lines show present-day coastlines and tectonic features moving with the plates. Snapshots of this animation are shown in Extended Data Figure 2.

  5. 5.

    South China Sea

    Rift velocities are plotted as coloured circles and represent the full rate of extension. They are evaluated at overlapping plate polygons (black). Rift-ward polygon limits are defined through present-day boundaries between continental and oceanic crust (COBs). Grey arrows depict relative plate velocities in the plate interior. Grey lines show present-day coastlines and tectonic features moving with the plates. Snapshots of this animation are shown in Extended Data Figure 3.

  6. 6.

    Gulf of California

    Rift velocities are plotted as coloured circles and represent the full rate of extension. They are evaluated at overlapping plate polygons (black). Rift-ward polygon limits are defined through present-day boundaries between continental and oceanic crust (COBs). Grey arrows depict relative plate velocities in the plate interior. Grey lines show present-day coastlines and tectonic features moving with the plates. Snapshots of this animation are shown in Extended Data Figure 3.

  7. 7.

    North America - Greenland Rift

    Rift velocities are plotted as coloured circles and represent the full rate of extension. They are evaluated at overlapping plate polygons (black). Rift-ward polygon limits are defined through present-day boundaries between continental and oceanic crust (COBs). Grey arrows depict relative plate velocities in the plate interior. Grey lines show present-day coastlines and tectonic features moving with the plates. Snapshots of this animation are shown in Extended Data Figure 4.

  8. 8.

    North East Atlantic Opening

    Rift velocities are plotted as coloured circles and represent the full rate of extension. They are evaluated at overlapping plate polygons (black). Rift-ward polygon limits are defined through present-day boundaries between continental and oceanic crust (COBs). Grey arrows depict relative plate velocities in the plate interior. Grey lines show present-day coastlines and tectonic features moving with the plates. Snapshots of this animation are shown in Extended Data Figure 4.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nature18319

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