Single-phase vs two-phase rifting: Numerical perspectives on the accommodation of extension during continental break-up

Megan Korchinski, Christian Teyssier, Patrice F. Rey, Donna L. Whitney, Luke Mondy

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How continental lithosphere responds to extension is a function of the dynamic interaction between layers of differing rheological properties, including the shallow crust, deep crust, lithospheric mantle, and asthenosphere. We investigate the first-order controls on the modes of extension and timing of transition from continental rifting to development of continental margins via a suite of 2D numerical experiments (Underworld-1 code) in which divergence velocity, viscosity of the deep crust, and density of rift-basin fill are systematically varied. Results demonstrate that divergence velocity controls the tempo of extension and the timing of the transition from rifting to drifting: fast divergence (2 cm/yr) produces a single-phase rifting event; slower divergence (1 cm/yr) results in a two-phase rifting history that includes prolonged uniform thinning (Phase 1) followed by rapid rifting (Phase 2) as soon as structures connect across the lithosphere. In the fast divergence experiments, the duration of rifting (10–12 My) depends on the deep crust viscosity and, therefore, the degree of intra-lithospheric coupling: a weaker deep crust delays the transition from rifting to drifting. There is no significant difference in timing between experiments with and without basins, except when the basin density is sufficiently high to drive a gravitational instability that generates a fast-subsidence (sagging) basin and a rapid transition to drifting. Experiments under slow divergence display two phases of rifting and a significant delay of the rift-to-drift transition. During Phase 1 (20–30 My duration), strain-rate is uniformly distributed in the lithospheric mantle, and the Moho remains flat. As the lithosphere reaches ~50% of its original thickness, faults and shear zones become connected through the entire lithosphere, leading to Phase 2 of rapid rifting that evolves swiftly to complete lithospheric rupture. The duration of Phase 2 (8–15 My), from the formation of lithosphere-scale faults and shear zones to the eventual lithosphere rupture, is similar to that under fast divergence experiments. Results also reveal that this time span does not correlate with deep crust viscosity in a linear manner. Whereas a strong deep crust and a weak deep crust develop positive feedback mechanisms that result in rapid rifting, an intermediate-viscosity deep crust lingers in stretching/thinning mode, and the rift-to-drift transition is not reached until after the end of experiments. This behavior reflects the competition between localizing processes that dominate deformation within strongly coupled lithosphere and relatively diffuse deformation that characterizes weakly coupled lithosphere; this competition results in a negative feedback that delays the rift-to-drift transition. The addition of basin deposition in the slow-divergence experiments significantly hastens the localization of rifting that defines the start of Phase 2.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number104715
JournalMarine and Petroleum Geology
StatePublished - Jan 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors sincerely thank Sverre Plank and two anonymous reviewers for their comments, which greatly improved this manuscript. This research was supported by grant NSF- EAR 1050020 to Teyssier and Whitney. The Underworld code is provided by AuScope Ltd., funded under the Australian National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy. Australia National Computational Infrastructure provided computational resources. Rey was supported by Australian Research Council's ITRH project IH130200012 and LP190100146. The Minnesota Supercomputing Institute provided support and funding.


  • Continental break up
  • Deep crustal flow
  • Numerical experiments
  • Ocean-continent transition zone
  • Passive margins
  • Rift-to-drift transition
  • Rifting
  • Sedimentary basin

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