Diffuse Extension of the Southern Mariana Margin

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Extension within the southern Mariana margin occurs both normal to and parallel to the trench. Trench-normal extension takes place along focused and broad backarc spreading axes forming crust that is passively accreted to the rigid Philippine Sea plate flank to the northwest. To the southeast, trench-parallel extension has split apart the Eocene-Miocene forearc terrain accreting new crust diffusely over a 150–200 km wide zone forming a pervasive volcano-tectonic fabric oriented at high angles to the trench and the backarc spreading center. Earthquake seismicity indicates active extension over this forearc region and basement samples date young although waning volcanic activity. Such diffuse formation of new oceanic crust and lithosphere is unusual; in most oceanic settings extension rapidly focuses to narrow plate boundary zones—a defining feature of plate tectonics. Diffuse crustal accretion has been inferred to occur during subduction zone infancy, however. We hypothesize that in a near-trench extensional setting, the continual addition of water from the subducting slab creates a weak overriding hydrous lithosphere that deforms broadly. This process counteracts mantle dehydration and strengthening proposed to occur at mid-ocean ridges that may help to focus deformation and melt delivery to narrow plate boundary zones. The observations from the southern Mariana margin suggest that where lithosphere is weakened by high water content narrow seafloor spreading centers cannot form. These conditions likely prevail during subduction zone infancy, explaining the diffuse contemporaneous volcanism inferred in this setting.

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Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth