A Modern View on the Red Sea Rift: Tectonics, Volcanism and Salt Blankets

  • Nico Augustin
  • Colin W. Devey
  • Froukje M. van der Zwan


Continental rifting and ocean basin formation can be observed at the present day in the Red Sea, which is used as the modern analogue for the formation of mid-ocean ridges. Competing theories for how spreading begins—either by quasi-instantaneous formation of a whole spreading segment or by initiation of spreading at multiple discrete “nodes” separated by thinned continental lithosphere—have been put forward based, until recently, on the observations that many seafloor features and geophysical anomalies (gravity, magnetics) along the axis of the Red Sea appeared anomalous compared to ancient and modern examples of ocean basins in other parts of the world. The latest research shows, however, that most of the differences between the Red Sea Rift (RSR) and other (ultra)slow-spreading mid-ocean ridges can be related to its relatively young age and the presence and movement of giant submarine salt flows that blanket large portions of the rift valley. In addition, the geophysical data that was previously used to support the presence of continental crust between the axial basins with outcropping oceanic crust (formerly named “spreading nodes”) can be equally well explained by processes related to the sedimentary blanketing and hydrothermal alteration. The observed spreading nodes are not separated from one another by tectonic boundaries but rather represent “windows” onto a continuous spreading axis which is locally inundated and masked by massive slumping of sediments or evaporites from the rift flanks. Volcanic and tectonic morphologies are comparable to those observed along slow and ultra-slow spreading ridges elsewhere and regional systematics of volcanic occurrences are related to variations in volcanic activity and mantle heat flow. Melt-salt interaction due to salt flows, that locally cover the active spreading segments, and the absence of large detachment faults as a result of the nearby Afar plume are unique features of the RSR. The differences and anomalies seen in the Red Sea still may be applicable to all young oceanic rifts, associated with plumes and/or evaporites, which makes the Red Sea a unique but highly relevant type example for the initiation of slow rifting and seafloor spreading and one of the most interesting targets for future ocean research.



The authors would like to thank the captains, crews and scientific parties of the expeditions with R/V Poseidon P408 and R/V Pelagia 64PE350/351 as well as the student helpers at GEOMAR, Kiel, who helped in processing the huge amount of data. We kindly thank Marco Ligi for providing the Urania RS05 bathymetry grid. Saudi Geological Survey is thanked for inviting us to the Red Sea Book Workshop. The Jeddah Transect Project between King Abdulaziz University and Helmholtz-Centre for Ocean Research GEOMAR was funded by King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, under grant no. T-065/430.


  1. Almalki KA, Betts PG, Ailleres L (2015) The Red Sea—50 years of geological and geophysical research. Earth-Sci Rev 147:109–140CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Altherr R, Henjes-Kunst F, Puchelt H, Baumann A (1988) Volcanic activity in the Red Sea axial trough—evidence for a large mantle diapir? Tectonophysics 150:121–133CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Altherr R, Henjeskunst F, Baumann A (1990) Asthenosphere versus lithosphere as possible sources for basaltic magmas erupted during formation of the Red-Sea—constraints from Sr, Pb and Nd isotopes. Earth Planet Sci Lett 96:269–286CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Augustin N, Devey CW, van der Zwan FM, Feldens P, Tominaga M, Bantan RA, Kwasnitschka T (2014) The rifting to spreading transition in the Red Sea. Earth Planet Sci Lett 395:217–230CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Augustin N, van der Zwan FM, Devey CW, Ligi M, Kwasnitschka T, Feldens P, Bantan RA, Basaham AS (2016) Geomorphology of the central Red Sea Rift: determining spreading processes. Geomorphology 274:162–179CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bäcker H, Richter H (1973) Die rezente hydrothermal-sedimentäre Lagerstätte Atlantis-II-Tief im Roten Meer. Geol Rundsch 62:697–741CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bäcker H, Schoell M (1972) New deeps with brines and metalliferous sediments in Red Sea. Nat Phys Sci 240:153–158CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Blanc G, Boulegue J, Charlou JL (1990) Profils d’hydrocarbures légers dans l’eau de mer, les saumures et les eaux intersticielles de la fosse Atlantis II (Mer Rouge). Oceanol Acta 13:187–197Google Scholar
  9. Bonatti E (1985) Punctiform initiation of seafloor spreading in the Red Sea during transition from a continental to an oceanic rift. Nature 316:33–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bonatti E, Colantoni P, Vedova BD, Taviani M (1984) Geology of the Red Sea transitional region (22°N-25°N). Oceanol Acta 7:385–398Google Scholar
  11. Bonatti E, Bortoluzzi G, Calafato A, Cipriani A, Ferrante V, Ligi M, Lopez Correa MCM, Redini F, Barabino G, Carminati E, Mitchell N, Sichler B, Schmidt M, Schmitt M, Rasul NRN, Al Nomani S, Bahareth F, Khalil S, Farawati R, Gitto D, Raspagliosi M (2005) Geophysical, geological and oceanographic surveys in the Northern Red Sea. Report on the morphobathymetric, magnetometric, oceanographic, coring and dredging investigations during cruise RS05 aboard R/V Urania. ISMAR Bologna Technical Report 94:1–40 Bologna, ItalyGoogle Scholar
  12. Büchel G (1993) Maars of the Westeifel, Germany. In: Negendank JFW, Zolitschka B (eds) Paleolimnology of European Maar lakes. Springer, Berlin Heidelberg, pp 1–13Google Scholar
  13. Cannat M, Sauter D, Escartín J, Lavier L, Picazo S (2009) Oceanic corrugated surfaces and the strength of the axial lithosphere at slow spreading ridges. Earth Planet Sci Lett 288:174–183CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Caratori Tontini F, Cocchi L, Carmisciano C (2009) Rapid 3-D forward model of potential fields with application to the Palinuro Seamount magnetic anomaly (southern Tyrrhenian Sea, Italy). J Geophys Res 114:B02103CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Carbotte SM, Smith DK, Cannat M, Klein EM (2015) Tectonic and magmatic segmentation of the Global Ocean Ridge System: a synthesis of observations. In: Wright TJ, Ayele A, Ferguson DJ, Kidane T, Vye-Brown C (eds) Magmatic rifting and active volcanism, vol 420. Geological Society London Special Publications, pp 1–47Google Scholar
  16. Carlson RL (2014) The influence of porosity and crack morphology on seismic velocity and permeability in the upper oceanic crust. Geochem Geophys Geosyst 15.
  17. Chu D, Gordon R (1998) Current plate motions across the Red Sea. Geophys J Int 135:313–328CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Cochran JR (1983) A model for the development of the Red Sea. Bull Am Assoc Petrol Geol 67:41–69Google Scholar
  19. Cochran JR (2005) Northern Red Sea: nucleation of an oceanic spreading center within a continental rift. Geochem Geophys Geosyst 6:Q03006. Scholar
  20. Coleman RG (1973) Geological map of the Red Sea. U.S. Geological Survey, scale 1:2,000,000Google Scholar
  21. Coleman RG, McGuire AV (1988) Magma systems related to the Red-Sea opening. Tectonophysics 150:77–100CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Courtillot V (1982) Propagating rifts and continental breakup. Tectonics 1:239–250CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. DeMets C, Gordon RG, Argus DF (2010) Geologically current plate motions. Geophys J Int 181:1–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Dick HJB, Lin J, Schouten H (2003) An ultraslow-spreading class of ocean ridge. Nature 426:405–412CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Drachev SS, Kaul N, Beliaev VN (2003) Eurasia spreading basin to Laptev Shelf transition: structural pattern and heat flow. Geophys J R Astron Soc 152:688–698CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Driesner T, Heinrich CA (2007) The system H2O–NaCl. Part I: correlation formulae for phase relations in temperature–pressure–composition space from 0 to 1000 °C, 0 to 5000 bar, and 0 to 1 XNaCl. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 71:4880–4901CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Egloff F, Rihm R, Makris J, Izzeldin Y, Bobsien M, Meier K, Junge P, Noman T, Warsi W (1991) Contrasting structural styles of the eastern and western margins of the southern Red-Sea—the 1988 SONNE experiment. Tectonophysics 198:329–353CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Feldens P, Mitchell NC (2015) Salt flows in the central Red Sea. In: Rasul NMA, Stewart ICF (eds) The Red Sea: the formation, morphology, oceanography and environment of a young ocean basin. Springer Earth System Sciences, Berlin, pp 205–218Google Scholar
  29. Geshi N, Németh K, Oikawa T (2011) Growth of phreatomagmatic explosion craters: a model inferred from Suoana crater in Miyakejima Volcano, Japan. J Volcanol Geotherm Res 201:30–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Ghebreab W (1998) Tectonics of the Red Sea region reassessed. Earth-Sci Rev 45:1–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Gilbert LA, Salisbury MH (2011) Oceanic crustal velocities from laboratory and logging measurements of Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Hole 1256D. Geochem Geophys Geosyst 12:Q09001. Scholar
  32. Girdler RW (1985) Problems concerning the evolution of oceanic lithosphere in the northern Red Sea. Tectonophysics 116:109–122CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Girdler RW, Evans TR (1977) Red Sea heat flow. Geophys J Int 51:245–251CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Girdler RW, Styles P (1974) Two stage Red Sea floor spreading. Nature 247:7–11CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Girdler RW, Underwood M (1985) The evolution of early oceanic lithosphere in the southern Red Sea. Tectonophysics 116:95–108CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Girdler RW, Whitmarsh RB (1974) Miocene evaporites in Red Sea cores, their relevance to the problem of the width and age of oceanic crust beneath the Red Sea. Init Rep Deep Sea Drill Proj 2:913–921Google Scholar
  37. Grachev AF (2003) The Arctic rift system and the boundary between the Eurasian and North American lithospheric plates: new insight to plate tectonic theory. Rus J Earth Sci 5:307–345CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Guennoc P, Pautot G, Coutelle A (1988) Surficial structures of the northern Red Sea axial valley from 23°N to 28°N: time and space evolution of neo-oceanic structures. Tectonophysics 153:1–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Gurvich EG (2006) Metalliferous sediments of the Red Sea. Metalliferous Sediments of the World Ocean. Springer, Berlin, pp 127–210Google Scholar
  40. Haase KM, Mühe R, Stoffers P (2000) Magmatism during extension of the lithosphere: geochemical constraints from lavas of the Shaban Deep, northern Red Sea. Chem Geol 166:225–239CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Hewitt A, Salisbury R, Wilson J (2010) Using multibeam echosounder backscatter to characterize seafloor features. Sea Technol 51:10–13Google Scholar
  42. Izzeldin AY (1987) Seismic, gravity and magnetic surveys in the central part of the Red Sea; their interpretation and implications for the structure and evolution of the Red Sea. Tectonophysics 143:269–306CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Kerrich R, Polat A (2006) Archean greenstone-tonalite duality: thermochemical mantle convection models or plate tectonics in the early Earth global dynamics? Tectonophysics 415:141–165CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Levi S, Riddihough R (1986) Why are marine magnetic anomalies suppressed over sedimented spreading centers? Geology 14:651–654CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Ligi M, Bonatti E, Bortoluzzi G, Cipriani A, Cocchi L, Caratori Tontini F, Carminati E, Ottolini L, Schettino A (2012) Birth of an ocean in the Red Sea: initial pangs. Geochem Geophys Geosyst. Scholar
  46. Little SA, Stephen RA, Honnorez J, Adamson AC, Alt JC, Emmermann R, Becker K (1985) Costa Rica Rift borehole seismic experiment, Deep Sea Drilling Project Hole 504B, Leg 92. Init Rep Deep Sea Drill Proj 83:517–528Google Scholar
  47. Manheim FT, Waterman LS, Woo CC, Sayles FL (1974) Interstitial water studies on small core samples, Leg 23 (Red Sea). In: Supko PR, Weser OE (eds) Initial reports of the deep sea drilling program. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, pp 955–967Google Scholar
  48. Miller NC, Lizarralde D (2013) Thick evaporites and early rifting in the Guaymas Basin, Gulf of California. Geology 41:283–286CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Mitchell NC (1993) A model for attenuation of backscatter due to sediment accumulations and its application to determine sediment thicknesses with Gloria sidescan sonar. J Geophys Res 98:22477–22493CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Mitchell NC, Augustin N (2017) Halokinetics and other features of GLORIA long-range sidescan sonar data from the Red Sea. Mar Pet Geol 88:724–738CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Mitchell NC, Park Y (2014) Nature of crust in the central Red Sea. Tectonophysics 628:123–139CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Mitchell NC, Ligi M, Ferrante V, BonattI E, Rutter E (2010) Submarine salt flows in the central Red Sea. Bull Geol Soc Am 122:701–713CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Mitchell NC, Ligi M, Feldens P, Hübscher C (2015) Deformation of a young salt giant: regional topography of the Red Sea Miocene evaporites. Basin Res 29(Suppl 1):352–369Google Scholar
  54. Moore DJG, Evans DBW (1967) The role of olivine in the crystallization of the prehistoric Makaopuhi tholeiitic lava lake, Hawaii. Contrib Mineral Petrol 15:202–223CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Pautot G, Guennoc P, Coutelle A, Lyberis N (1984) Discovery of a large brine deep in the northern Red Sea. Nature 310:133–136CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Prodehl C, Mechie J (1991) Crustal thinning in relationship to the evolution of the Afro-Arabian rift system—a review of seismic-refraction data. Tectonophysics 198:311–327CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Ross DA, Schlee J (1973) Shallow structure and geologic development of the southern Red Sea. Bull Geol Soc Am 84:3827–3848CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Sandwell DT, Mueller RD, Smith WHF, Garcia E, Francis R (2014) New global marine gravity model from CryoSat-2 and Jason-1 reveals buried tectonic structure. Science 346:65–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Sato H, Taniguchi H (1997) Relationship between crater size and ejecta volume of recent magmatic and phreato-magmatic eruptions: implications for energy partitioning. Geophys Res Lett 24:205–208CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Schettino A, Macchiavelli C, Pierantoni PP, Zanoni D, Rasul N (2016) Recent kinematics of the tectonic plates surrounding the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Geophys J Int 207:457–480CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Schmidt M, Devey CW, Eisenhauer A (2011) FS POSEIDON Cruise Report P408. Berichte aus dem Leibniz-Institut für Meereswissenschaften an der Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel 46Google Scholar
  62. Schmidt M, Al-Farawati R, Al-Aidaroos A, Kürten B (2013) RV PELAGIA Cruise Report 64PE350/64PE351. Berichte aus dem Helmholtz-Zentrum für Ozeanforschung Kiel (GEOMAR) 5Google Scholar
  63. Schofield N, Alsop I, Warren J, Underhill JR, Lehne R, Beer W, Lukas V (2014) Mobilizing salt: magma-salt interactions. Geology 42:599–602CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Searle RC, Ross DA (1975) A geophysical study of the Red Sea axial trough between 20.5° and 22°N. Geophys J Int 43:555–572CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Stoffers P, Kühn R (1974) Red Sea evaporites: a petrographic and geochemical study. In: Supko PR, Weser OE (eds) initial reports of the deep sea drilling program. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, pp 821–847Google Scholar
  66. Stoffers P, Ross DA (1974) Sedimentary history of the Red Sea. In: Supko PR, Weser OE (eds) Initial reports of the deep sea drilling program. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, pp 849–865Google Scholar
  67. Sultan M, Becker R, Arvidson RE, Shore P, Stern RJ, Elalfy Z, Guinness EA (1992) Nature of the Red-Sea crust—a controversy revisited. Geology 20:593–596CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Sultan M, Becker R, Arvidson RE, Shore P, Stern RJ, Elalfy Z, Attia RI (1993) New constraints on Red-Sea rifting from correlations of Arabian and Nubian Neoproterozoic outcrops. Tectonics 12:1303–1319CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Swift S, Reichow M, Tikku A, Tominaga M, Gilbert L (2008) Velocity structure of upper ocean crust at Ocean Drilling Program Site 1256. Geochem Geophys Geosyst 9, Q10O13. Scholar
  70. Taylor B, Goodliffe AM, Martinez F, Hey R (1995) Continental rifting and initial sea-floor spreading in the Woodlark basin. Nature 374:534–537CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Taylor B, Goodliffe AM, Martinez F (1999) How continents break up: insights from Papua New Guinea. J Geophys Res 104:7497–7512CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Tramontini C, Davies D (1969) A seismic refraction survey in the Red Sea. Geophys J Int 17:225–241CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. van der Zwan FM, Devey CW, Augustin N, Almeev RR, Bantan RA, Basaham A (2015) Hydrothermal activity at the ultraslow- to slow-spreading Red Sea Rift traced by chlorine in basalt. Chem Geol 405:63–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Walker GPL (1973) Explosive volcanic eruptions—a new classification scheme. Geol Rundsch 62:431–446CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. White R, McKenzie D (1989) Magmatism at rift zones: the generation of volcanic continental margins. J Geophys Res 94(B6):7685–7729CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Whitmarsh RB, Manatschal G, Minshull TA (2001) Evolution of magma-poor continental margins from rifting to seafloor spreading. Nature 413:150–154CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nico Augustin
    • 1
  • Colin W. Devey
    • 1
  • Froukje M. van der Zwan
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research KielKielGermany
  2. 2.Institute of Geosciences, Christian Albrechts University KielKielGermany

Personalised recommendations