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The geological history and evolution of West Antarctica

Abstract

West Antarctica has formed the tectonically active margin between East Antarctica and the Pacific Ocean for almost half a billion years, where it has recorded a dynamic history of magmatism, continental growth and fragmentation. Despite the scale and importance of West Antarctica, there has not been an integrated view of the geology and tectonic evolution of the region as a whole. In this Review, we identify three broad physiographic provinces and present their overlapping and interconnected tectonic, magmatic and sedimentary history. The Weddell Sea region, which lays furthest from the subducting margin, was most impacted by the Jurassic initiation of Gondwana break-up. Marie Byrd Land and the West Antarctic rift system developed as a broad Cretaceous to Cenozoic continental rift system, reworking a former convergent margin. Finally, the Antarctic Peninsula and Thurston Island preserve an almost complete magmatic arc system. We conclude by briefly summarizing the geologic history of the West Antarctic system as a whole, how it provides insight into continental margin evolution and what key topics must be addressed by future research.

Key points

  • West Antarctica is a geologically complex region that developed along the margin of Gondwana between the subducting Paleo-Pacific oceanic plate and the cratonic East Antarctic continent.

  • West Antarctica can be broken into three broad geological and physiographic provinces: the Weddell Sea sector; the West Antarctic rift system and Marie Byrd Land; and the Antarctic Peninsula and Thurston Island.

  • The Weddell Sea sector includes the oldest rocks in West Antarctica, was least affected by the marginal subduction system and its movement to its current position during the Jurassic initiation of Gondwana break-up was associated with back-arc extension in the Weddell Sea rift system.

  • The West Antarctic rift system and Marie Byrd Land region followed as an active subducting margin and magmatic arc outboard from the East Antarctic Ross orogen. Subduction ceased during the Cretaceous, associated with extreme crustal extension and resulting in a broad rift basin and, ultimately, New Zealand rifting away.

  • The Antarctic Peninsula and Thurston Island exemplify a continental margin magmatic arc, preserving a record of the flare-ups in magmatism. Arc magmatism ceased from south to north between 90 and 20 million years ago as the Phoenix oceanic spreading centre reached the continental margin trench.

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Fig. 1: West Antarctic setting.
Fig. 2: Timeline of key West Antarctic tectonic and magmatic events.
Fig. 3: Plate tectonic reconstruction from 175 to 45 Ma.
Fig. 4: Cross sections of the evolution of West Antarctica.

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Acknowledgements

This paper was supported by the British Antarctic Survey Geology and Geophysics team (T.A.J. and T.R.R.), NSF Antarctic Integrated System Science award 1443497 and the Geology Department of Colorado College (C.S.S.).

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Nature Reviews Earth & Environment thanks John Bradshaw, Sergio Rocchi and Simon Harley for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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The Weddell Sea province section was led by T.A.J., the Marie Byrd Land and West Antarctic rift system section was led by C.S.S. and the Antarctic Peninsula and Thurston Island section was led by T.R.R.

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Correspondence to Tom A. Jordan.

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Glossary

Nunataks

An isolated rock outcrop standing proud of the surrounding ice sheet, often used as a descriptive Antarctic place name.

Grenvillian

The mountain-building event ~1,000 million years ago, seen in continents around the world, which led to the assembly of the supercontinent of Rodinia.

Hf

(Hafnium). A geologically useful isotope, as its value is strongly controlled by its magmatic source, which is linked to tectonic setting.

Zircons

Highly resistant silicate minerals formed by igneous and metamorphic processes; the isotopes they contain and/or exclude make them ideal for radiometric dating and geochemical analysis.

Mantle extraction ages

Isotopically determined ages when the minerals making up a crustal rock were first extracted from the underlying mantle.

Laurentian

Referring to a large continental craton, which, today, forms the core of North America, but which was likely positioned close to Antarctica within the supercontinent of Rodinia.

Paleomagnetic data

The preserved orientation of magnetic minerals in rocks, which can be used to reconstruct where the rock was formed.

U-Pb dating

Use of the relative abundances of isotopes of uranium (U) and lead (Pb) to determine the age that crystals formed within a magma or metamorphic rock.

Nd isotopic data

The use of samarium–neodymium (Sm–Nd) isotope decay system to determine the age of formation and evolution of the continental crust.

Leucogranites

Granites with a high proportion of light-coloured minerals compared with darker-coloured minerals; they are typically formed in continental collision settings.

Plutonism

The formation of intrusive magmatic rocks beneath the Earth’s surface, in contrast to volcanism, where magmas are erupted onto the Earth’s surface.

Calc-alkaline

Magmas that are typically hydrous and oxidized, and are generally found in arcs above subduction zones.

Migmatite

A metamorphic rock where significant partial melting has begun.

Molasse

Poorly sorted terrestrial and shallow marine deposits associated with erosion from a nearby active orogenic belt.

Supra-subduction

Being in a position overlying the subducting slab in a subduction zone system.

Transpressional

Having undergone simultaneous strike–slip and compressive deformation.

Hyaloclastite

Volcaniclastic breccia emplaced in a submarine or subglacial setting.

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Jordan, T.A., Riley, T.R. & Siddoway, C.S. The geological history and evolution of West Antarctica. Nat Rev Earth Environ 1, 117–133 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-019-0013-6

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