Testing hypotheses for lithosphere thinning during continental breakup: drilling at the South China Sea rifted margin1
Published August 2018
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International Ocean Discovery Program Expedition 368 is the second of two consecutive cruises that form the South China Sea Rifted Margin program. Expeditions 367 and 368 share the common key objectives of testing scientific hypotheses of breakup of the northern South China Sea (SCS) margin and comparing its rifting style and history to other nonvolcanic or magma-poor rifted margins. Four primary sites were selected for the overall program: one in the outer margin high (OMH) and three seaward of the OMH on distinct, margin-parallel basement ridges. These three ridges are informally labeled A, B, and C. They are located within the continent–ocean transition (COT) zone ranging from the OMH to the interpreted steady-state oceanic crust (Ridge C) of the SCS. The main scientific objectives include
- Determining the nature of the basement within crustal units across the COT of the SCS that are critical to constrain style of rifting,
- Constraining the time interval from initial crustal extension and plate rupture to the initial generation of igneous ocean crust,
- Constraining vertical crustal movements during breakup, and
- Examining the nature of igneous activity from rifting to seafloor spreading.
In addition, the sediment cores from the drill sites targeting primarily tectonic and basement objectives will provide information on the Cenozoic regional environmental development of the Southeast Asia margin.
Expedition 368 was planned to drill at two primary sites (U1501 and U1503) at the OMH and Ridge C, respectively. However, based on drilling results from Expedition 367, Expedition 368 chose to insert an alternate site on Ridge A (Site U1502). In total, the expedition completed operations at four sites (U1501, U1502, U1504, and U1505). Site U1503, however, was not completed beyond casing to 990 m because of mechanical problems with the drilling equipment that limited the expedition from 25 May 2017 to the end of the expedition to operate with a drill string not longer than 3400 m. New alternate Site U1504 proposed during Expedition 367 met this condition. Site U1505 also met the operational constraints of the 3400 m drill string (total) and was an alternate site for the already drilled Site U1501.
At Site U1501, we cored to 697.1 m in 9.4 days, with 78.5% recovery. We also drilled ahead for 433.5 m in Hole U1501D and then logged downhole data from 78.3 to 399.3 m. In 19.3 days at Site U1502, we penetrated 1679.0 m, set 723.7 m of casing and cored a total of 576.3 m with 53.5% recovery, and collected downhole log data from 785.3 to 875.3 m and seismic data through the 10¾ inch casing. At Site U1503, we penetrated 995.1 m, setting 991.5 m of 10¾ inch casing, but no cores were taken. At Site U1504, we took 40 rotary core barrel (RCB) cores over two holes. The cored interval between both holes was 277.3 m with 26.8% recovery. An 88.2 m interval was drilled in Hole U1504B. At Site U1505, we cored 668.0 m with 101.1% recovery. Logging data was collected from 80.1 to 341.2 m. Operations at this site covered 6.1 days. Except for Site U1505, we drilled to acoustic basement, which prior to the expedition, except for Site U1501, had been interpreted to be crystalline basement. A total of 6.65 days were lost due to mechanical breakdown or waiting on spare supplies for repair of drilling equipment.
At Site U1501 on the OMH, coring ~45 m into the acoustic basement sampled highly lithified sandstone to conglomerate of presumed Mesozoic age overlain by siliciclastic Eocene pre- to synrift sediments of Oligocene age and topped by primarily carbonaceous postrift sediments of early Miocene to Pleistocene age. Site U1502 on Ridge A was cased to 723.7 m. At this site, we recovered 180 m of hydrothermally altered brecciated basalts comprising sheet and pillow lavas below deep-marine sediments of Oligocene to late Miocene age. Coring was not performed within the upper 380 m (~Pliocene–Pleistocene) at Site U1502. At Site U1503 on Ridge C, 991.5 m of casing was installed in preparation for the planned deep drilling to ~1800 m, but no coring was performed due to mechanical failures, and the site was abandoned without further activity. Coring at Site U1504 on the OMH ~45 km east of Site U1501 recovered metamorphic schist to gneiss (greenschist facies) below late Eocene (?) carbonate rocks (partly reef debris) and early Miocene to Pleistocene sediments. At Site U1505, we cored to 480.15 m through Pleistocene to late Oligocene mainly carbonaceous ooze followed at depth by early Oligocene to late Eocene siliciclastic sediments.
Efforts were made at every drill site to correlate the core with the seismic data and seismic stratigraphic unconformities interpreted within the Eocene to Plio–Pleistocene sedimentary sequence prior to drilling. The predrilling interpretation of ages of these unconformities was in general confirmed by drilling results.
As a result of the constraints on the length of drill string that could be deployed during the later part of Expedition 368, the secondary expedition objectives addressing the environmental history of the SCS and Southeast Asia received more focus than planned because these sites are located in shallower water depths and required less penetration depth. This forced change in emphasis, however, was without fatal consequences for the primary tectonic objectives. The two expeditions together provided solid evidence for a process of breakup that included vigorous synrift magmatism as opposed to the often-favored interpretation of the SCS margin as a magma-starved margin.
1Jian, Z., Larsen, H.C., Alvarez Zarikian, C.A., and the Expedition 368 Scientists, 2018. Expedition 368 Preliminary Report: South China Sea Rifted Margin. International Ocean Discovery Program. https://doi.org/10.14379/iodp.pr.368.2018