The Changing Faces of the South China Sea
Abstract:The South China Sea (SCS) region was situated during Mesozoic on the upper plate of a subduction zone. It later evolved as a collapsed continental basin on the edge of the Yenshanian Andean-type orogeny which has been since then considerably eroded, exposing only granites and relicts of Cretaceous molasse basins. The continental crust rifted from the Paleocene to the Mid Oligocene in the eastern part, and the rifting continued until the Middle Miocene in the SW, in an environment of marginal basin opened in the midst of the lower plate. Both spreading and rifting ceased when the subduction of the Proto South China Sea (PSCS) was blocked. Finally the SCS basin which was previously always open to the NE, became isolated by the docking of the northern Philippine Mobile Belt in Luzon, Mindoro and Taiwan islands, during the Late Miocene. Since then the basin subsided whereas the margins observed various amount of uplift, and subsequent gravity tectonics.
We illustrate how these event are interdependent, the Cretaceous active margin opening the PSCS by rifting and oceanic crust developed from magma-poor rifting to subsequent seafloor spreading in the Paleogene. It is not clear how the inherited sub continental mantle played a role in the unusual rifting style of the SCS, whose upper crust was extremely stretched for a large time span and was sustained near sea level during the entire duration of the rifting process. The large Jurassic and Cretaceous granitic bodies conditioned the location of the extension via large detachments and normal faults; so that the present day morphology of the sea floor still reflects the location of the granites on which large reefal platforms developed. The mid Miocene cessation of subduction in the PSCS created shortening which jammed its sediments on the NE margin of Borneo, thus generating sub-aerial conditions for the NW Borneo wedge. The resulting erosion created the large deltas starting from the end of the Early Miocene. Excess of sediment loading in the deltas induced gravity tectonics.
All these events created favorable setting for oil and gas prospectivity; the rifting conditions with very shallow to fluvio-lacustrine environment over a long time was suitable for organic matter, reef developments, and basins with granite-derived sand deposits, and the FTB and gravity tectonics developed in the South.