The Young Marginal Basin as a Key to Understanding the Rift-Drift Transition and Andean Orogenesis: OBS Refraction Profiling for Crustal Structure in Bransfield Strait
This award, provided by the Antarctic Geology and Geophysics Program of the Office of Polar Programs, supports research to study the deep crustal structure of the Bransfield Strait region. Bransfield Strait, in the northern Antarctic Peninsula, is one of a small number of modern basins that may be critical for understanding ancient mountain-building processes. The Strait is an actively-extending marginal basin in the far southeast Pacific, between the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands, an inactive volcanic arc. Widespread crustal extension, accompanied by volcanism along the Strait's axis, may be associated with slow underthrusting of oceanic crust at the South Shetland Trench; similar "back-arc" extension occurred along the entire Pacific margin (now western South America/West Antarctica) of the supercontinent known as Gondwanaland during the Jurassic-Early Cretaceous. Mid-Cretaceous deformation of these basins some 100 million years ago initiated uplift of the Andes. By understanding the deep structure and evolution of Bransfield rift, it should be possible to evaluate the crustal precursor to the Andes, and thereby understand more fully the early evolution of this globally important mountain chain.
Years of international earth sciences research in Bransfield Strait has produced consensus on important aspects of its geologic environment: (1) It is probably a young (probably ~4 million years old) rift in preexisting Antarctic Peninsula crust; continued stretching of this crust results in complex fault patterns and associated volcanism. The volcanism, high heat flow, and mapped crustal trends are all consistent with the basin's continuing evolution as a rift; (2) The volcanism, which is recent and continuing, occurs along a "neovolcanic" zone centralized along the basin's axis. Multichannel seismic data collected aboard R/V Maurice Ewing in 1991 illustrate the following basin-wide characteristics of Bransfield Strait - a) widespread extension and faulting, b) the rise of crustal diapirs or domes associated with flower-shaped normal-fault structures, and c) a complicated system of fault-bounded segments across strike. The geophysical evidence also suggests NE-to-SW propagation of the rift, with initial crustal inflation/doming followed by deflation/subsidence, volcanism, and extension along normal faults.
Although Bransfield Strait exhibits geophysical and geologic evidence for extension and volcanism, continental crust fragmentation does not appear to have gone to completion in this "back-arc" basin and ocean crust is not yet being generated. Instead, Bransfield rift lies near the critical transition from intracontinental rifting to seafloor-spreading. The basin's asymmetry, and seismic evidence for shallow intracrustal detachment faulting, suggest that it may be near one end-member of the spectrum of models proposed for continental break-up. Therefore, this basin is a "natural lab" for studying diverse processes involved in forming continental margins.
Understanding Bransfield rift's deep crustal structure is the key to resolving its stage of evolution, and should also provide a starting point for models of Andean mountain-building. This work will define the deep structure by collecting and analyzing high-quality, high-density ocean bottom seismometer (OBS) profiles both along and across the Strait's strike. Scientific objectives are as follows: (1) to develop a detailed seismic velocity model for this rift; (2) to calibrate velocity structure and crustal thickness changes associated with presumed NE-to-SW rift propagation, as deduced from the multichannel seismic interpretations; (3) to document the degree to which deep velocity structure corresponds to along- and across-strike crustal segmentation; and (4) to assess structural relationships between the South Shetland Islands "arc" and Bransfield rift.
The proposed OBS data, integrated with interpretations of both Ewing profiles and those from other high-quality geophysical coverage in Bransfield Strait, will complement ongoing deep seismic analysis of Antarctic Peninsula crust to the southwest and additional OBS monitoring for deep earthquakes, in order to understand the complex plate tectonic evolution of this region.
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