Lithospheric structure of the Southwest South China Sea: implications for rifting and extension

The South China Sea (SCS) is an excellent site for studying the process of conjugate margin rifting, and the origin and evolution of oceanic basins. Compared with the well-defined northern margin of the SCS, the western and southern segments of the SCS margin have not been researched in significant detail. To investigate the regional structure of the southwestern SCS, a gravity model is constructed, along with the lithospheric thermal structure along a wide-angle seismic profile. The profile extends across the conjugate margins of the Southwest Sub-Basin (SWSB) of the SCS and is based on the latest multiple geophysical measurements (including heat flow and thermo-physical parameters). The results show that the average thicknesses of the crust and thermal lithosphere along the profile are about 15 km and 57 km, respectively. The overall amount of extension of continental crust and lithosphere is more than 200 km. Thermal structure of the lithosphere shows that the continental margins are in a warm thermal state. The southwest SCS is characterized by ultra-wide, thinned continental crust and lithosphere, high Moho heat flow, early syn-rift faulted basins, undeformed late syn-rifting, and high seismic velocities in the lower crust. These various pieces of evidence suggest that the break-up of the mantle lithosphere occurred before that of the continental crust favouring a depth-dependent extension of the southwestern SCS margin.