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Rapid transition from continental breakup to igneous oceanic crust in the South China Sea

Nature Geosciencevolume 11pages782789 (2018) | Download Citation


Continental breakup represents the successful process of rifting and thinning of the continental lithosphere, leading to plate rupture and initiation of oceanic crust formation. Magmatism during breakup seems to follow a path of either excessive, transient magmatism (magma-rich margins) or of igneous starvation (magma-poor margins). The latter type is characterized by extreme continental lithospheric extension and mantle exhumation prior to igneous oceanic crust formation. Discovery of magma-poor margins has raised fundamental questions about the onset of ocean-floor type magmatism, and has guided interpretation of seismic data across many rifted margins, including the highly extended northern South China Sea margin. Here we report International Ocean Discovery Program drilling data from the northern South China Sea margin, testing the magma-poor margin model outside the North Atlantic. Contrary to expectations, results show initiation of Mid-Ocean Ridge basalt type magmatism during breakup, with a narrow and rapid transition into igneous oceanic crust. Coring and seismic data suggest that fast lithospheric extension without mantle exhumation generated a margin structure between the two endmembers. Asthenospheric upwelling yielding Mid-Ocean Ridge basalt-type magmatism from normal-temperature mantle during final breakup is interpreted to reflect rapid rifting within thin pre-rift lithosphere.

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The authors acknowledge the Chinese National Offshore Oil and Gas Company (CNOOC) for providing access for Z.S. and H.C.L. to work on their large regional database of seismic reflection data, which CNOOC subsequently amended with acquisition of new data to document our selected drill sites. The authors thank the RV JOIDES Resolution crew and the IODP technical staff. The IODP–China office supported international workshops to develop the original drilling proposal. Co-principal investigators of the drilling proposal, P. Wang and C.-F. Li, are acknowledged for their contributions to planning. This research used data and samples provided by the International Ocean Discovery Program. A.K. and C.A.-Z. acknowledge support from NSF award no. OCE-1326927. D.Z. was supported by the Korean IODP program (KIODP).

Author information

Author notes

    • A. McCarthy

    Present address: School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol , Clifton, UK


  1. State Key Laboratory of Marine Geology, Tongji University, Shanghai, China

    • H. C. Larsen
    • , Z. Jian
    • , E. Huang
    • , H. Jin
    • , L. Li
    • , C. Liu
    • , Z. Liu
    • , L. Yi
    •  & G. Zhong
  2. Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, Copenhagen, Denmark

    • H. C. Larsen
  3. Université de Cergy-Pontoise, Laboratoire Géosciences et Environnement Cergy (GEC), Neuville-sur-Oise, France

    • G. Mohn
    •  & M. Nirrengarten
  4. CAS Key Laboratory of Ocean and Marginal Sea Geology, South China Sea Institute of Oceanology, Guangzhou, China

    • Z. Sun
    • , J. Lin
    • , N. Qiu
    • , X. Su
    • , R. Xiang
    • , C. Zhang
    •  & J. Zhang
  5. Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, USA

    • J. Stock
    •  & J. Hinojosa
  6. International Ocean Discovery Program, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, USA

    • A. Klaus
    • , C. A. Alvarez-Zarikian
    •  & T. W. Höfig
  7. Dipartimento di Geoscienze, Università degli Studi di Padova, Padova, Italy

    • J. Boaga
  8. School of Geosciences, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, UK

    • S. A. Bowden
  9. GET, Universite de Toulouse, UMR 5563 CNRS, CmNES, IRD, Obs. Midi-Pyrenees, Toulouse, France

    • A. Briais
  10. Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Guangzhou, China

    • Y. Chen
  11. Petroleum & Marine Research Division, Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources (KIGAM), Daejeon, Republic of Korea

    • D. Cukur
  12. School of Geosciences, University of Sydney, Camperdown, New South Wales, Australia

    • K. Dadd
  13. Key Laboratory of Submarine Geoscience, Second Institute of Oceanography (SIO), State Oceanic Administration (SOA), Hangzhou, China

    • W. Ding
  14. Department of Geological Sciences, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT, USA

    • M. Dorais
  15. School of Geosciences, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Lafayette, LA, USA

    • E. C. Ferré
  16. Programa de Pós-Graduação em Dinâmica dos Oceanos e da Terra da Universidade Federal Fluminense (DOT-UFF), Brazil - CAPES Foundation, Ministry of Education of Brazil, Brasilia, Brazil

    • F. Ferreira
  17. Department of Geoscience, Shimane University, Matsue City, Shimane, Japan

    • A. Furusawa
  18. Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Lincoln, NE, USA

    • A. Gewecke
  19. JAMSTEC, Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan

    • K. H. Hsiung
  20. Department of Geology, Peking University, Beijing, China

    • B. Huang
  21. State Key Laboratory of Isotope Geochemistry, Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Guangzhou, China

    • X. L. Huang
  22. Institute of Groundwater and Earth Sciences, Jinan University, Guangzhou, China

    • S. Jiang
  23. Department of Geology and Geography, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV, USA

    • B. G. Johnson
  24. GEOMAR Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research , Kiel, Germany

    • R. M. Kurzawski
    •  & F. M. van der Zwan
  25. Institute of Geosciences, Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel, Kiel, Germany

    • R. M. Kurzawski
    •  & F. M. van der Zwan
  26. Key Laboratory of Tectonics and Petroleum Resources of Ministry of Education, China University of Geosciences, Wuhan, China

    • C. Lei
  27. Department of Micropalaeontology, Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology, Nanjing, China

    • B. Li
  28. School of Geographical and Oceanographical Sciences, Nanjing University, Nanjing Shi, China

    • Y. Li
  29. Department of Geology and Geophysics, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA, USA

    • J. Lin
    •  & N. Zhao
  30. Department of Geology and Geophysics, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA, USA

    • C. Liu
    •  & P. Persaud
  31. Department of Geology, University of South Florida, Tampa, FL, USA

    • A. J. Luna
  32. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Università degli studi di Pavia, Pavia, Italy

    • C. Lupi
  33. Institute of Earth Sciences, University of Lausanne, Geopolis, Lausanne, Switzerland

    • A. McCarthy
  34. Department of Marine Geophysics, National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR), Vasco Da Gama, Goa, India

    • L. Ningthoujam
    •  & R. Yadav
  35. Faculty of Science, Graduate School of Science and Technology for Innovation, Yamaguchi-shi, Yamaguchi, Japan

    • N. Osono
  36. Earth & Environmental Sciences, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, USA

    • D. W. Peate
  37. School of Earth Sciences, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, USA

    • C. Robinson
  38. Dipartimento di Ingegneria e Geologia, Università degli studi G D’Annunzio Chieti-Pescara, Chieti, Italy

    • S. Satolli
  39. Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS), University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

    • I. Sauermilch
  40. Institute of Earth Sciences, Heidelberg University, Heidelberg, Germany

    • J. C. Schindlbeck
  41. Department of Geology, California State University, Sacramento, CA, USA

    • S. Skinner
  42. Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, Palisades, NY, USA

    • S. Straub
  43. Institute of Oceanography, National Taiwan University, Tapei, Taiwan

    • C. Su
  44. Institute of Deep-sea Science and Engineering, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Sanya City, Hanai Province, China

    • L. Tian
  45. Institute of Oceanology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Qingdao, Shandong Province, China

    • S. Wan
  46. School of Ocean Sciences, China University of Geosciences, Haidian District, Beijing, China

    • H. Wu
  47. Taiwan Ocean Research Institute, NARLabs, Kaohsiung, Taiwan

    • P. S. Yu
  48. Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA

    • Y. Zhang
  49. School of Marine Sciences, Sun Yat-Sen University, Zhuhai, China

    • L. Zhong


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H.C.L. was co-principal investigator (co-PI) for the original drilling proposal and interpretation of seismic data, co-chief scientist of expeditions 367/368, and directed the writing of the paper. G.M. is principal co-author, developed the geodynamic model jointly with H.C.L. and M.N. and was a shipboard scientist (structural geology) at expedition 368. M.N. was a shipboard scientist (structure/sedimentology) at expedition 367, carried out structural interpretation of syn-rift sedimentation, and contributed to model development and graphics. Z.S was co-PI for the original drilling proposal, interpretation of seismic data, and was co-chief scientist of expeditions 367/368. J.S. was co-chief scientist of expeditions 367/368 and co-proponent of the original drilling proposal. Z.J. was co-chief scientist of expeditions 367/368 and coordinated biostratigraphic interpretations. A.K. was expeditions 367/368 project manager. C.A.A.-Z. was expeditions 367/368 project manager and performed biostratigraphy. J.B., A.B., Y.C., M.D., A.F., J.H., T.W.H., K.H., B.H., X.H., B.J., C.Lei., L.L., Z.L., A.L., C.Lupi, A.McC., M.N., C.R., I.S., C.S., X.S., R.X., R.Y., L.Y., C.Z., J.Z., Y.Z., N.Z. and L.Z. collected the drilling data during IODP expedition 367 and participated in the writing of the paper. S.B., D.C., K.D., W.D., E.F., F.F., A.G., E.H., S.J., H.J., R.K., B.L., Y.L., J.L. (co-PI)., Chang Liu, Chuanlian Liu, L.N., N.O., D.W.P., P.P., N.Q., S.Sa., J.C.S., S.St., L.T., F.M.vdZ., S.W., H.W., P.S.Y. and G.Z. collected the drilling data during IODP expedition 368 and participated in writing of the paper. Roles on board are detailed in

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to H. C. Larsen or G. Mohn.

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