The Role of Rift Obliquity During Pangea Fragmentation

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Nathaniel P Butterworth1, Sascha Brune2,3, Simon Williams2 and Dietmar Müller2, (1)University of Sydney, EarthByte Group, Sydney, Australia, (2)University of Sydney, EarthByte Group, Sydney, NSW, Australia, (3)Helmholtz Centre Potsdam GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, Geodynamic Modelling Section, Potsdam, Germany
Does supercontinent break-up follow specific laws? What parameters control the success and the failure of rift systems? Recent analytical and geodynamic modeling suggests that oblique rifting is energetically preferred over orthogonal rifting. This implies that during rift competition, highly oblique branches proceed to break-up while less oblique ones become inactive. These models predict that the relative motion of Earth's continents during supercontinent break-up is affected by the orientation and shape of individual rift systems.

Here, we test this hypothesis based on latest plate tectonic reconstructions. Using PyGPlates, a recently developed Python library that allows script-based access to the plate reconstruction software GPlates, we quantify rift obliquity, extension velocity and their temporal evolution for continent-scale rift systems of the past 200 Myr. Indeed we find that many rift systems contributing to Pangea fragmentation involved strong rift obliquity. East and West Gondwana for instance split along the East African coast with a mean obliquity of 55° (measured as the angle between local rift trend normal and extension direction). While formation of the central and southern South Atlantic segment involved a low obliquity of 10°, the Equatorial Atlantic opened under a high angle of 60°. Rifting between Australia and Antarctica involved two stages with 25° prior to 100 Ma followed by 50° obliquity and distinct increase of extension velocity.

Analyzing the entire passive margin system that formed during Pangea breakup, we find a mean obliquity of 40°, with a standard deviation of 20°. Hence 50% of these margins formed with an angle of 40° or more. Considering that many conceptual models of rifting and passive margin formation assume 2D deformation, our study quantifies the degree to which such 2D models are globally applicable, and highlights the importance of 3D models where oblique rifting is the dominant mode of deformation.