Although regional isostasy generally is associated with continental lithospheric compression and foreland basin formation, local isostatic compensation commonly is assumed in models of extensional basin formation. The assumption of negligible lithospheric strength during rifting often is justified on the basis of: (1) high heat flow and temperatures produced by elevating the lithosphere-asthenosphere boundary and (2) fracturing of the crust and lithosphere by normal faults. By modeling the development of rift basins within the Western rift system of East Africa and their associated free air gravity anomalies, we assess the role of basin-producing normal faults in modifying the flexural strength of extended lithosphere. Heat flow and seismicity data from the East African plateau region indicate that the Western rift system located on the western side of the plateau developed in old, cold continental lithosphere. These relatively narrow (40-70 km wide), but deep, basins are bounded along one side by high-angle border faults that penetrate to lower crustal levels, as indicated by seismicity data. Along the length of the Western rift system, depth to pre-rift basement and rift flank topography vary between basins from 1 to 8 km and from 1 to 2 km respectively, with deeper basins generally correlating with higher flanks. Comparison of model predictions with topography and free air gravity profiles reveals that the basin depth and the flank height in the majority of the Western rift basins studied can be explained simply by small heaves (3-10 km) across the border fault and with significant flexural strength of the lithosphere maintained during extension. Where both observed basin depth and flank height could not be reproduced, basins were located adjacent to eruptive volcanic centers active in Miocene-Recent times. In these areas, basin depth, rift flank elevation, and free air gravity anomaly may be modified by magmatic underplating of the crust. Estimates of effective elastic thickness T(e) obtained from our forward models vary between 17 and 38 km. These T(e) estimates are consistent with previous values obtained through the wavenumber domain correlation of Bouguer gravity and topography data. We find that the lithosphere beneath East Africa maintains significant flexural strength in extension despite localized, but intense, fracturing of the crust by normal faults that penetrate to lower crustal levels. Therefore the assumption of local isostasy (T(e) approximately 0) appears invalid within the youthful Western rift system.
Gu918Times Cited:46Cited References Count:82