The thermal imprint of continental breakup during the formation of the South China Sea

Michael Nirrengarten* (Corresponding Author), Geoffroy Mohn, Andrea Schito, Sveva Corrado, Laura Gutiérrez-García, Stephen Bowden, Frank Despinois

*Corresponding author for this work

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The stretching of continental lithosphere results in asthenospheric upwelling, raising of isotherms, melting during decompression and eventually seafloor spreading. The thermal maturity of overlying sedimentary organic matter from these settings would be expected to be distinctly altered by these processes, however this is still poorly constrained and quantitatively unexplored. International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) Expeditions 367-368 cored sediments at the Continent Ocean Transition (COT) on the Northern Margin of the South China Sea (SCS). From two settings at the South East China COT we measured and modelled thermal maturity in pre-/syn- to post-rift sediments making use of a range of thermal maturity parameters. Various heat-flow evolutionary scenarios were investigated, with notable jumps in thermal maturity for sediments corresponding to different depositional packages. In order to match observations of thermal maturity, it was found that the deeper and likely pre-rift sediments were heated to temperatures as high as 200°C during initial break up. Achieving this temperature for the deeper sediments requires that significant additional heat be imparted at shallow depths (e.g. exposure to at least the far-field effects of a magmatic intrusion or subsurface expressions of volcanism). The post-rift sediments have lower thermal maturities which are likely due to limited burial and the absence of late post-rift magmatism. The comparison of the SE China COT with other margin examples highlights some parameters controlling the thermal evolution and its record.
Original languageEnglish
Article number115972
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
Early online date6 Dec 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2020

Bibliographical note

This research used data provided by the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP).We thanks the participants to IODP Expedition 367-368 as well as the captains and crew of the Joides Resolution. Seismic sections originate from the IODP Expedition 367/368/368X proceeding volume. Platte River Associates, Inc is thanked for providing an academic licence of BasinMod 2D. We acknowledge IODP France and ECORD for the support. Funding for this research was provided by Total SA R&D (J.N. Ferry). SAB gratefully acknowledges NERC award NE/R002576/1; Measuring Rates of Weathered Petroleum Accumulation, South China Sea.


  • continental breakup
  • thermal evolution
  • SE China distal margin
  • IODP
  • organic petrography
  • Raman spectroscopy
  • biomarker analysis
  • SE China Margin
  • IODP 367-368


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