Rifting Models and the Geologic History of Virginia
~Introduction to Rifting Models~
In the past 600 million years the eastern seaboard
of North America has experienced two episodes of rifting, that is, the opening of two ocean basins. These basins include the Proto-Atlantic
) and the
Atlantic (Stage L
). Previous rifting events have been recorded in Virginia and
the Mid-Atlantic region, although they are fragmentary and sometimes masked by
Discovering and unraveling major geologic events requires the application of a theoretical model of how these events occur and the kinds of rocks and structures they generate. Modern
models of rifting events are based on
a wide range of source data, from geophysical data, to evidence of modern events (i.e., modern-day analogues), to evidence of ancient events.
These models specify not only the sequence of events and their timing, but also
tell us what evidence is needed to identify an ancient rifting event. If critical
pieces of evidence can be gathered and fit into a theoretical model, a trained
geologist can reconstruct an ancient event. Interpretation and reconstruction is
subjective, however, the more evidence one has, the stronger the interpretation
and model-fitting is a science and typically, geologists are guided in their evidence
gathering by a theory. If evidence is found that does not fit the
theory, then the theory may be wrong, and a new one must be devised. This process
is repeated until a strong case for interpretation and reconstruction can be made and defended.
It is possible to read the geologic history of Virginia (16 Page Version) without knowing the models we have to explain and make sense of it, but the history is much more meaningful if you know the models exist, and what they say. It is important to remember, however, that a model is just a model, a synthesis, an average, or an ideal. The natural world rarely matches a model perfectly and we must be ready to work with a certain amount of divergence from the model.
The Rifting Model
~Mantle Plumes and Hot Spots~
A divergent plate
boundary, where two lithospheric plates separate to create an ocean basin, does
not exist naturally but is created through the rifting process (Stages B and C). When fully developed, divergent plate boundaries are located
within and generate ocean basins. As the plates diverge, mafic magma oozes up from the mantle below into the newly formed crack
or rift to create new oceanic lithosphere, also called the Ophiolite Suite. In this rifting model, we look at how divergent boundaries are first
created during the rifting of a continent.
A divergent plate boundary initiates somewhere within a plate, away from the edges. The plate may be a block of continental Craton
, or a part of ocean basin (Cross Section). When rifting is complete a new divergent plate boundary and a new ocean Basin has been created. The former single plate (or continent) is divided into two plates (or continents).
Rifting is initiated by
magma plumes rising from deep in the mantle toward the surface, as shown on the
figure to the left. Plumes are randomly distributed over the earth; most arise under
a continent or ocean basin, but some may exist at plate boundaries. As the plume rises toward the surface it heats the
overlying lithosphere, or rigid outer shell of the earth, causing it to swell
upward to create a hot spot. Commonly, magma reaches the surface to produce volcanoes
at the hot spot.
The cross section above shows both a continental and an
oceanic hot spot. The plumes causing hot spots are
stationary in the mantle; unlike the overlying plates that shift continuously
plumes do not move. Hence as a plate moves across a hot spot the tectonic and
volcanic activity at the surface keeps shifting. Eventually a long string of
volcanoes may form. The Hawaiian Islands are an example of an oceanic hot spot,
and Yellowstone Park a continental hot spot. There
are many ancient and modern examples of hot spots. Most are isolated and go
through their entire history without initiating a rifting event. Sometimes,
however, several hot spots join and begin a chain of processes that result in
rifting, creation of a new ocean basin, and a new divergent plate boundary. The
processes responsible for this are descrbelow
in the next four stages.
~Hot Spot and Thermal Doming~
When a mantle plume reaches the base of the continental lithosphere it spreads out creating a pond of magma (see cross section above). The overlying lithosphere heats and swells upward to form the hot spot, about 1000 km in diameter and 3 to 4 km above sea level. The map to the right right shows an areal (airplane) view of two hot spots with triple junctions.
As the hot spot dome swells its upper surface stretches until the brittle crust cracks (faults) along a series of three rift valleys radiating away from the center of the hot spot. These 3 rift valleys are a triple junction. Ideally the three rift valleys radiate from the center of the hot spot at 120o, but often the triple junction is not symmetrical and arms may diverge at odd angles.
The heat from the mantle plume causes two kinds of volcanic activity. Pipes of Mafic Magma
) from the ponded plume work their way through the lithosphere, eventually forming volcanoes at the surface. But heat from the plume also warms the base of the continent causing portions of it to melt to form Felsic Magma
), that may also reach the surface to form volcanos. This simultaneous appearance of both mafic and felsic magma is unusual and is called abimodal association because two markedly different magma types emplace more or less simultaneously. The cross section below is an enlargement along cross section line A-B on the map to the right and shows the swollen hot spot stage with a mafic (Basalt
ic) volcano and felsic (granitic) batholiths. Also observe the faults near the surface and the early horsts and graben.
An isolated hot spot may go through all these processes and then simply die. The mantle plume dissipates, the continent cools and sinks again, the volcanic activity stops, and sediments fill in the rift valleys. At the end nothing would be visible at the surface to indicate that the rifts and volcanoes lie buried below the surface.
In other situations, however, when several hot spots are closely associated, they may join to form a very long rift valley. For example, the map above shows two triple junctions set to join. If conditions are right these may then initiate the formation of new divergent plate boundary, and an ocean basin (discussed below).
When triple junctions join, only two of the three arms of each triple junction connects with adjacent hot spots. The third arm becomes inactive and is, therefore, called a failed arm (or an aulacogen) (blue on the map above). After rifting is complete and a new ocean basin, aulacogens exist like a gash cutting into the continent almost at right angles from the edge. Many ancient aulacogens are known, although most have now filled with sediment and are not observable at the surface. They are good evidence that a hot spot once existed. The sediment and volcanics filling an aulacogen are similar to the processes operating in the active rifts.
~Foundering of Rift Valley and Marine Invasion~
Foundering is the collapse of a portion of the earth's surface down to form a depression. Axial rifts are founderings typically tens of kilometers across, with elevations from the rift floor to the mountain crests on either side as much as 4-5 km.
Structurally, rift valleys are block-fault graben (valleys created when a block of the earth sinks), bordered by horst mountains on either side (horsts are blocks of the earth that move up relative to the graben.) If we think about the mechanics of a hot spot, the earth swells upward, causing it to stretch or pull apart across the top. As the earth pulls apart it cracks and leaves space, so naturally a block of the earth will slide down into the space (the graben). The part that does not slide down, the horst, is now higher. Because the earth has already swollen upward with the hot spot it is not necessary for the horsts to move up, but it is easy for the graben to slide down. This process occurs in tens of thousands of tiny steps, each creating a small crack, the sum total of which stretches the earth apart many kilometers.
The faults between the horsts and graben are normal faults. The are termed normal because it is "normal" for a graben to fall down under gravity. The fault surfaces are curved so that the graben blocks rotate as they subside, trapping small basins where lakes form between the down faulted-block and the wall behind the fault. Many of the lakes are very deep and, based on modern rift lakes, may be extremely salty or alkaline. In the lake bottoms black, organic rich clay
s accumulate because there is no circulation or oxygen in the deep water.
Typically a large number of horsts and graben form, of all sizes. The edges of the major horsts bordering the axial graben are the continental terraces (also called hinge zones). Inside the major axial graben are numerous smaller horsts and graben.
It is also typical for smaller half graben (normal fault on one side only) to form for several hundred kilometers to either side of the axial graben or axial rift (the terms are interchangeable).
Initially the axial valley floor is subareal (i.e., above water) but as the axial graben subsides, the sea invades creating a narrow marine Basin
(making it subaqueous). A modern example of a rift in this stage is the Red Sea
The horst mountain highlands that border the rift valleys are composed of Felsic Igneous
continental rocks (Granite
s) that erode rapidly to coarse arkosic (feldspar rich) sediments. Most of the sediments are deposited in systems where environments change rapidly from terrestrial to deep marine. All around the Basin
edges, at the base of the faults, the sediments accumulate in steep-faced alluvial fans that rapidly change into braided rivers, and then dump into submarine fans. The Basin
center is frequently deep and anoxic, and thinly Lamina
ted black Clay
s and silts are deposited. Thousands of meters of sediment may accumulate during this stage.
Igneous activity is very common during this stage, and volcanics and lava flows, sometimes Mafic
, sometimes felsic, may interlayer with the sediments. The volcanics may be pyroclastic (blasted out of exploding volcanos), or quieter flows. The flows may accumulate thousands of feet thick and pillow basalt
s commonly form.
In a geologically short time (~ 10 million years) the horsts are eroded and the graben filled with sediment. As the former great relief (difference in elevation) diminishes the topography smooths out, and the ocean begins to cover the region.
~Early Divergent Margin~
During active rifting, the continental crust, heated by the mantle plume, stretches like pulled taffy (or silly putty) and thins, while the brittle upper layers fault and founder to form the axial rift. The whole thing is being held up by the plume heat, and the ponded Mafic
magma is much closer to the surface making it easier to erupt. This is a very unstable situation (the whole system would collapse quickly if the heat were removed).
As a result, shortly after the sea floods the axial rift, a great surge of mafic volcanic activity begins along one side of the axial rift. The magma is at first injected into the granitic continental crust as uncountable Basalt
ic dikes. So many dikes are formed it is hard to decide what the original rocks were. This mixture of Granite
and injected Basalt
is transition crust, because it is transitional between continental and oceanic crust (see drawing above). This is the beginning of the final splitting of the original single continent into two, and Formation
of the a new ocean basin.
As volcanic activity continues, the gap between the two new divergent continental margins widens as they separate, and oceanic lithosphere Formation
begins. Surge after surge of magma rises from a newly forming convection cell and injects into the opening gap. Because this new igneous rock is mafic in composition (Basalt
near the surface and Gabbro
at depth), and of high density, it "floats" on the underlying mantle below sea level. This creates the new oceanic lithosphere, called . At an average rifting rate of about 5 cm/year the two new divergent continental margins can be a thousand kilometers apart in 20 million years.
In the rifting process the axial rift is not split in two. Ocean crust initiation takes place on one side or the other of the axial rift. One continent retains the axial graben and the other loses it. The result is an asymmetry to the new continental margins. The margin with the axial rift tends to have a gradual transition to oceanic crust, stepping across the axial rift with its minor horsts and graben. The continent without the axial graben drops off precipitously to oceanic crust. Our model follows the axial graben side on the west (left).
Heat and magma rising to the surface from the convection cell remains concentrated at the rifting site in the new ocean Basin
center. As the ocean Basin
widens the newly formed continental margins move away from the heat source, and cool. Cool crust is denser than warm crust and soon the continental terrace subsides below sea level. These early stages are the time of most rapid cooling and subsidence.
By the time ocean crust Formation
is well under way the axial and lateral graben are nearly filled with sediment. As the new continental margin subsides Relative Sea Level Rise
s, and the Shoreline
begins to transgress or migrate across the continental margin. The transgressing sea spreads a layer of pure Quartz
sand out as a beach deposit blanketing the entire region. The Quartz
sand is the first clear evidence in the rock record that the continental terrace has subsided below sea level and is stabilizing.
As the sea transgresses the sea gets deeper and the beach gives way to a nearshore shelf environment, that then becomes a deep shelf environment. This deposition creates a rapidly seaward-thickening wedge of divergent continental margin (DCM) deposits with a shelf, slope, and rise (see cross section at above).
~Full Divergent Margin~
Subsidence due to thermal decay (the loss of heat from the crust and resulting increase in density) is rapid at first, but declines exponentially with time. Divergent continental margins take about 120 million years to reach stability (isostatic equilibrium). Sediment continues to accumulate throughout this time, thickest toward the ocean where subsidence is greatest, and thinning toward the continent. In the end, a sedimentary wedge, 17 kilometers thick at its maximum, is present. Notice in the cross section the volcano that in the hot spot stage was above sea level is now very deep in the earth.
The sediment deposited on the divergent continental margin remains mostly shallow-water marine because subsidence and deposition go on at about the same rate. In a warm climate next to a stable Craton
these may be mostly Carbonate
s and Dolomite
s), otherwise they are sandstones and Shale
s. If the continental margin stabilizes before something else happens, the sediment just continues to accumulate, but now builds out (progrades) over the ocean floor.
This final stage of the rifting will continue indefinitely, or until some other tectonic event intrudes to destroy the quiet divergent margin.