Role of subduction-plate boundary forces during the initial stages of Gondwana break-up: evidence from the proto-Pacific margin of Antarctica
In the West Antarctic sector of Gondwana, early stages of break-up are associated with the large Antarctic-Karoo-Tasman basalt province. Formation of this within-plate province was synchronous with active margin tectonics and development of both a proto-Pacific margin magmatic suite along the Antarctic Peninsula and the extensive Tobífera volcanic suite associated with the Rocas Verdes marginal basin system of southern South America and South Georgia. Extension, concurrent with subduction and oceanward migration of the magmatic focus, resulted in a broad extensional province in a back-arc and intra-arc-setting. High geothermal gradients and basalt underplating caused crustal melting on the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula and formation of bimodal basalt-rhyolite suites. Large-ion lithophile element enriched initial rifting magmas were succeeded, at least in part of the Rocas Verdes basin, by early drift magmas of transitional chemistry and then by entirely asthenospheric MORB magmas representing lithospheric rupture and sea-floor spreading. A plate interaction model is proposed for the initial stages of Gondwana break-up relating the broad zone of mantle melting to a reduction in subduction-plate boundary forces. The change from Gondwanide compression to lithospheric extension in the Jurassic may be linked to a change from shallow to steeply dipping subduction, and to a slowing of subduction rates caused by a change in plate boundary zone parameters. A possible reduction of compressive boundary stresses may have enabled unconfined, overthickened Permo-Triassic crust to extend because of gravitational instability, thus facilitating break-up. We suggest that break-up was not plume-related, but was due to variations in the regional stress field associated with changing plate-boundary forces. The continental crust was placed under tension with substantial lithospheric thinning and decompression melting of an enriched mantle source forming the broad linear zone of within-plate magmatism. The presence of a plume beneath the Karoo province may have thermally weakened the lithosphere and induced local rifting, contributing to, but not causing the eventual separation of East and West Gondwana.