Opening of the South China Sea and its implications for southeast Asian tectonics, climates, and deep mantle processes since the late Mesozoic


Chun Feng Li, Tongji University
Jian Lin, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Denise K. Kulhanek, Texas A&M University
Trevor Williams, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Rui Bao, ETH Zürich
Anne Briais, Université Fédérale Toulouse Midi-Pyrénées
Elizabeth A. Brown, University of South Florida St. Petersburg
Yifeng Chen, Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry Chinese Academy of Sciences
Peter D. Clift, Louisiana State University
Frederick S. Colwell, Oregon State University
Kelsie A. Dadd, Macquarie University
Weiwei Ding, State Oceanic Administration China
Iván Hernández Almeida, University of Bern
Xiao Long Huang, Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry Chinese Academy of Sciences
Sangmin Hyun, Korea Institute Of Ocean Science & Technology
Tao Jiang, China University of Geosciences
Anthony A.P. Koppers, Oregon State University
Qianyu Li, Chinese Academy of Sciences
Chuanlian Liu, Chinese Academy of Sciences
Qingsong Liu, Tongji University
Zhifei Liu, Tongji University
Renata H. Nagai, Universidade de Sao Paulo - USP
Alyssa Peleo-Alampay, University of the Philippines Diliman
Xin Su, China University of Geosciences, Beijing
Sun Zhen, South China Seas Institute of Oceanography Chinese Academy of Sciences
Maria Luisa Marissa G. Tejada, Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology
Hai Son Trinh, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Vietnam
Yi Ching Yeh, Taiwan Ocean Research Institute
Chuanlun Zhang, Chinese Academy of Sciences
Fan Zhang, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Guo Liang Zhang, Institute of Oceanology Chinese Academy of Sciences
Xixi Zhao, University of California, Santa Cruz
Haopeng Tang, TV News Center

Document Type


Publication Date



The South China Sea (SCS) provides an outstanding opportunity to better understand complex patterns of continental margin breakup and basin formation. The sea is situated at the junction of the Eurasian, Pacific, and Indo-Australian plates and is a critical site linking some of the major western Pacific tectonic units. Despite extensive studies, sampling of basement rock and directly overlying basal sediment in the deep basin is lacking. This leaves a large margin of error in estimated ages of the SCS open-ing and closing, rendering various hypotheses regarding its opening mechanism and history untested. This also hampers understanding of East Asian tectonic and paleo-environmental evolution. We drilled five sites in the deep basin of the SCS. Three of these sites (U1431, U1433, and U1434) cored into oceanic basement near the fossil spreading center. The two remaining sites (U1432 and U1435) are located proximal to the northern continent/ocean boundary. We recovered a total of 1524 m of sediment/sedimentary rock and 78 m of oceanic basalt and also carried out downhole geophysical logging (triple combination and Formation MicroScanner-sonic tool strings) at the two deepest sites (U1431 and U1433). These materials and data were extensively examined and discussed during the expedition and allowed us to draw the following principal conclusions on the opening of the SCS: 1. Based on shipboard dating of microfossils in the sediment immediately above the basaltic basement and between the lava flow units, the preliminary cessation age of spreading in both the East and Southwest Subbasins is around early Miocene (16-20 Ma). Further postcruise radiometric dating of basement basalt from these sites plus additional calibration of magnetic anomaly models and paleomagnetic measurements will further refine the age range. Overall, a large difference is not apparent in the terminal ages of seafloor spreading between the two subbasins. 2. At Site U1435, we were able to drill into a structural high standing along the continent/ ocean boundary. Coring at this site recovered a sharp unconformity at ~33 Ma, above which is marine sediment and below which are poorly sorted sandstone and black mudstone, interpreted as littoral deposits. Environmental interpretation will require further shore-based studies because the sequence is almost entirely barren of marine microfossils. Nevertheless, we interpret this unconformity to be likely directly related to the continental break-up during the initial opening of the SCS. The onset of seafloor spreading is therefore estimated to be at ~33 Ma. 3. All sites contain deep marine deposits but show significant areal variations in postspreading sedimentary environment and provenance. Site U1431 records ev-idence for deep-marine turbidite deposition from terrestrial sources. The ob-served coarser silt turbidites may have a source in Taiwan or other surrounding blocks, whereas interbedded calcareous turbidites at this site could be trans-ported from local sources, such as nearby seamounts topped by carbonate plat-forms. In contrast, the source for upper Miocene clay and silt turbidites at Site U1433 could be from Borneo or mainland Southeast Asia, with the source of the interbedded carbonate turbidites likely from the Dangerous Grounds or Reed Bank area located south of the site. 4. Sites U1431 and U1434 are close to seamounts developed along the relict spread-ing center. Occurrences of basaltic clasts and mineral fragments in the volcani-clastic sandstone and breccia may reveal the magmatic history and mantle source of the seamounts and potentially their relationship with the terminal pro-cesses of spreading. The volcaniclastic breccia and sandstone at Site U1431 are dated as late middle Miocene to early late Miocene (~8-13 Ma), suggesting a 5 m.y. duration of seamount volcanism starting a few million years after the ces-sation of seafloor spreading. At Site U1434, volcaniclastic breccia and sandstone are most likely sourced from the adjacent seamount ~15 km to the north. The age of this recovered unit is late Miocene (younger than 9 Ma). Further postcruise sedimentological and geochemical studies, as well as radiometric dating of potas-sium-bearing mineral fragments, will refine the ages and timing of these sea-mount activities and reveal how magma sources at the dying spreading center evolved through time. 5. We successfully cored into ocean basement in the SCS for the first time and re-covered basalt at three sites (U1431, U1433, and U1434). The cored basalt has variable phase assemblages of plagioclase, olivine, and clinopyroxene and is con-cluded to be typical mid-ocean-ridge basalt based on petrological and geochem-ical evidence. Postcruise radiometric dating will determine the absolute ages of the basaltic basement units. Postcruise petrological and geochemical analyses on the basalts will provide information on the mantle sources, melting, and crystal-lization history of the youngest ocean crust.

Publication Source (Journal or Book title)

Integrated Ocean Drilling Program: Preliminary Reports

First Page


Last Page


This document is currently not available here.