Intraplate lithospheric extension revealed by seismic reflection profiling of South China

Shuwen Dong, Jianhua Li, Rui Gao, Peter A. Cawood, Hans Thybo, Stephen T. Johnston, Liqing Jiao, Yueqiao Zhang, Jinming Wang

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8 Citations (Scopus)


How lithospheric extension evolves in an intraplate setting remains uncertain due to the lack of reliable constraints on the lithospheric architecture. Here we present seismic reflection data across the Cretaceous extensional system of South China. Our results show that extension in magma-poor conditions was accommodated by localized normal faulting in the upper crust and distributed ductile stretching in the lower crust, followed by localized crustal necking and Moho uplift associated with mantle shear-zone formation. These vertically spaced crustal and mantle features appear to be kinematically linked as follows. First, lower-crustal stretching was accompanied by normal faulting and localized exhumation of extensional domes along low-angle detachments in the upper crust. Second, sub-horizontal lower-crustal stretching tends to compensate for upper-crustal heterogeneous thinning and distribute crustal strain evenly, enabling the crust to maintain an overall smooth and flat Moho. Third, mantle shear zones likely affected lithospheric extension by controlling localized Moho uplift and crustal necking. Our compilation of seismic observations suggests that the extensional modes vary laterally from magma-poor to magma-rich conditions, reflected in increased crustal melting, decreased crust-mantle decoupling, and the replacement of a two-layer (high-strength vs. low-strength) lithospheric mantle by a single-layer, low-strength lithospheric mantle. These findings reveal a first-order configuration of depth-dependent extension over ∼800 km, with vertical and lateral variations as a function of lithospheric strength, rheology, and temperature. This extension mechanism provides a basis for assessing modes of lithospheric extension in other tectonic settings.

Original languageEnglish
Article number118100
Number of pages10
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2023


  • Cretaceous
  • crustal thinning
  • lithospheric extension
  • seismic reflection profiling
  • South China

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