Geodynamics of the South China Sea

Jean Claude Sibuet, Yi Ching Yeh, Chao Shing Lee

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

146 Scopus citations

Abstract

The beginning of seafloor spreading in the South China Sea (SCS) is now established from IODP drilling Leg 349 at 33 Ma. Chron 12 (32 Ma) is the oldest chron identified in the SCS. The nature of the crust of the northeastern part of the SCS located north of chron C12, where chrons 15 to 17 were previously identified, is not oceanic but thinned continental crust intruded by volcanic elongated features emplaced 17–22 Ma ago. Based on magnetic anomaly identifications, the end of the SCS spreading could be either 15.5, 20.5 Ma (Briais et al., 1993; Barckhausen et al., 2014) or something else. However, as post-spreading magmatic activity (~ 13–3.5 Ma) largely masks the spreading fabric in particular near the axis of the east sub-basin, published locations of the axial magnetic anomaly (extinct spreading axis) and spreading rates are not reliable. A contoured map of the extremely dense set of magnetic data shows that a few magnetic lineations belonging to the magnetic seafloor spreading fabric are still preserved and parallel to the N055° bathymetric seafloor spreading trends identified on swath-bathymetric maps in the central part of the SCS, suggesting that the extinct ridge axis is N055° trending with potential N145° transform faults. Based on published swath-bathymetric data, oceanic domains with different seafloor spreading lineaments have been delimited (N055°, N075° and N085°) and provide important constraints used to propose a kinematic sketch of the SCS opening. As a consequence, the Zhongnan faults zone, located between the east and southeast sub-basins, acted as a major fracture zone system during the SCS opening, with horizontal offsets varying from ~ 50 km to ~ 140 km. The flow-line pattern defined from the seafloor spreading lineaments and the few identified FZs have been used to highlight conjugate segments of continental margins. During the first phases of opening of the SCS, from the fit of continents to chron C10 (30 Ma), the N175° extension observed in the Xisha trough and eventually south of the Macclesfield Bank extends to the Qui Nhon ridge, located along the eastern margin of Vietnam, in the southward prolongation of the Red River fault system. Normal faults curve toward the south with a horsetail geometry interpreted as evidence for a few tens of kilometers of dextral motion along the Qui Nhon ridge. Since chron 10 and until the end of SCS opening, the plate boundary located between the southern South China Sea (SSCS) and EU plates jumped westward several times from the location of the Ulugan fault near Palawan to the western limit of the southwest basin, explaining the progressive formation of the SCS from east to west and giving the characteristic V-shape of the SCS. The opening of the whole SCS is linked and occurred simultaneously with the northward subduction of the proto-SCS whose suture is located south of Palawan and extends westwards in north Borneo.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)98-119
Number of pages22
JournalTectonophysics
Volume692
DOIs
StatePublished - 5 Dec 2016

Keywords

  • Gravity
  • Kinematics
  • Magnetics
  • South China Sea
  • Structural and tectonic analyses

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