Anomalous opening of the Equatorial Atlantic due to an equatorial mantle thermal minimum

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Earth and Planetary Science Letters
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The geology of the Equatorial Atlantic is dominated by a broad east-west megashear belt where a cluster of large fracture zones offsets anomalously deep segments of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (MAR). The origin and evolution of this megashear region may lie ultimately in an equatorial mantle thermal minimum. The notion of a mantle thermal minimum in the Equatorial Atlantic is supported by an equatorial minimum of zero-age topography, a maximum in mantle shear waves seismic velocity and a minimum in the degree of melting, indicated by the chemistry of MAR basalts and peridotites. This thermal minimum has probably been a stable feature since before the Cretaceous separation of Africa from South America; it caused a pre-opening equatorial continental lithosphere thicker and colder than normal. The Cretaceous Benue Trough in western Africa and the Amazon depression in South America are interpreted as morphostructural depressions created or rejuvenated by strike-slip, transpressional and transtensional tectonics during extension of the cold/thick equatorial lithosphere, The oceanic rift propagating northward from the South Atlantic impinged against the equatorial thicker, colder and, therefore, stronger than normal continental, lithosphere that consequently acted as a 'locked zone'. This, and a low magmatic budget due to the cold upper mantle, caused a lower than normal rate of propagation of the oceanic rift into the equatorial belt, with diffuse deformation during mostly amagmatic extension. The thick/cold lithosphere prevented major Cretaceous igneous activity from the St, Helena plume. Eventually initial 'weak' isolated nuclei of oceanic lithosphere were emplaced, separated by E-W continent/continent transforms. Opening occurred largely by strike-slip motion along these initial transforms. The consequences were that the Equatorial Atlantic opened prevalently along an E-W direction, in contrast to the N-S opening of the North and South Atlantic, and that sheared continental margins are particularly well developed in the Equatorial Atlantic. After further continental separation the cold equatorial mantle caused a low degree of melting (with Na-rich MORE and alkali basalt rather than normal MORE and with undepleted mantle peridotites), thin crust, depressed ridge segments and a prevalence of amagmatic extension. Similar conditions still exist today. Long transforms offsetting short ridge segments kept sea floor spreading unstable and dominated by transform tectonics, with transform migration, transpression, and transtension causing strong vertical motion, emersion and subsidence of lithospheric blocks, development of deep pull-apart basins, and preservation of relict slivers of old lithosphere (occasionally even of continental lithosphere) within younger crust. The equatorial transforms are caused ultimately by a long lived thermal minimum in the upper mantle and not vice versa; however, they then create second-order 'rebound' thermal effects that help maintain the thermal minimum in the upper mantle. It can be speculated that mantle thermal minima at the Earth's equator might be related to true polar wander triggered by subduction of dense masses into the mantle.


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