The reorganization of oceanic spreading centers separating major plates often appears to occur by a process in which discrete microplates form and evolve by rift propagation. To see whether such microplate behavior has implications for continental rifting, we investigate the application of a microplate model to the Afar region at the Nubia‐Somalia‐Arabia triple junction. Studies of marine magnetic anomalies, volcanic ages, bathymetry, and seismicity suggest that the westward propagating Gulf of Aden spreading center has propagated into eastern Afar within the past 2 m.y., causing rifting and extension within the continent. We derive constraints on the extension history from the geometry and timing of rift formation and from paleomagnetic data indicating that Pliocene to Pleistocene age rocks have undergone a clockwise rotation of ∼11°. We suggest that the history of rifting, the rotation, and several other features of the regional geology can be described by combining features of an oceanic microplate model and the concept of rift localization previously proposed for Afar. In this scenario, motion occurring on several rifts within an extensional zone preceding the propagating spreading center is gradually transferred to a single rift. While motion is transferred, the overlap region between the growing and dying rifts acts as one or more microplates or blocks that rotate relative to the surrounding major plates. The rifting history and rotations in eastern Afar are thus related to the rift propagation and localization that occurs as the plate boundary evolves. Provided the constraints we use are appropriate, our model better describes the regional kinematics than alternative block models including one based on “bookshelf” faulting. If the tectonics of Afar are typical for continental breakup, they have interesting implications for the geometry of passive margins. In particular, asymmetric rifted margins can be produced if the final location of the rift axis is not at the center of the zone of initially disrupted lithosphere. Additionally, if the rate of rift propagation and the rate and location of rift localization are not uniform, then along‐axis structural variations will result.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Geochemistry and Petrology