Marine Geophysical Research

, Volume 34, Issue 3–4, pp 341–365 | Cite as

The sedimentary, magmatic and tectonic evolution of the southwestern South China Sea revealed by seismic stratigraphic analysis

  • Lu Li
  • Peter D. Clift
  • Hung The Nguyen
Original Research Paper


The southwestern South China Sea represents an area of continental crust frozen immediately before the onset of seafloor spreading. Here we compile a grid of multichannel seismic reflection data to characterize the continent-ocean transition just prior to full break-up. We identify a major continental block separated from the shelf margin by a basin of hyperextended crust. Oligocene-Early Miocene rifting was followed by mild compression and inversion prior to 16 Ma, probably linked to collision between the Dangerous Grounds, a continental block to the east of the study area, and Borneo. The timing of inversion supports models of seafloor spreading continuing until around 16 Ma, rather than becoming inactive at 20 Ma. The off-shelf banks experienced uplift prior to 16 Ma in an area, which had previously been a depocenter. The off-shelf banks continued to extend after this time when the rest of the region is in a phase of thermal subsidence. Post-rift magmatism is seen in the form of scattered seamounts (~5–10 km across) within or on the edge of the deeper basins, and are dated as Late Miocene and Pliocene. They are not clearly linked to any phase of tectonic activity. Further inversion of the off-shelf banks occurred in the Pliocene resulting in a major unconformity despite the lack of brittle faulting of that age. We speculate that this is part of a wider pattern of scattered magmatism throughout the South China Sea at this time. Prograding clinoforms are seen to build out from the shelf edge in the south of the study area during the Pliocene, after 5.3 Ma, and then more towards the north and east during the Pleistocene. At the same time a trough south of the off-shelf banks is filled with >1.35 km of mostly Pleistocene sediment. While we expect the bulk of the sediment to come from the Mekong River, we also suggest additional sediment supply from Borneo and the Malay Peninsula via the Molengraaff River and its predecessors.


Seismic stratigraphy Extension Inversion Seamounts Clinoforms 



We thank PetroVietnam and Total Exploration and Production for providing data used in this study. The study benefited from comments by Jean-Luc Auxiètre and Gwang Hoon Lee.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of GeosciencesUniversity of AberdeenAberdeenUK
  2. 2.Department of Geology and GeophysicsLouisiana State UniversityBaton RougeUSA
  3. 3.Vietnam Petroleum InstituteHanoiVietnam

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