CONTINENTAL RIFTING: rrr and RRR triple junctions

Four main stages can be recognised in the tectonic development of a typical rifted passive margin:


(1) The RIFT VALLEY stage involves early graben formation prior to continental splitting. This stage may be associated with domal uplift caused by uprise of hot upper mantle material - but this uplift is not ubiquitous and may be connected with underlying mantle hotspots. Example: African Rift Valley.

(2) The YOUTHFUL stage, lasting about 50 my after the onsett of seafloor spreading, while the thermal effects are still dominant. This stage is characterised by rapid regional subsidence of the outer shelf and slope, but some graben formation may persist. Example: Red Sea.

(3) The MATURE stage during which more subdued regional subsidence may continue. Example: most of the present Atlantic continental margins.

(4) The FRACTURE stage when subduction starts and terminates the history of the continental margin.

There are many examples of Stage 1. East African Rift Valley is the classic example. But also the Midland Valley of Scotland, the Rhine Graben, the Oslo Graben. These rifts have never got beyond stage 1. Commonly the volcanism associated with these rifts is highly alkaline and undersaturated in silica.

Rifts in Africa

Fig. 3. The continent of Africa is thought to have been split by a series of rift valleys in various states of development. Those in East Africa are still in thick crust. Those in West Africa are associated with thick oil-bearing sediments. In the Red Sea area the rifting has gone so far as to form a narrow ocean. In the south-east Madagascar has been completely separated from Africa by rifting.

What initiates rifting? There has been considerable discussion on this over the years. Some have ascribed rifting to up-doming of the crust over a hot-spot; certainly parts of the E African rift system are very elevated, compared with other sectors, suggesting that the doming reflects an underlying hot low-density mantle plume. In other cases, geophysical models suggest the asthenospheric mantle is rising to high levels beneath the rift. However it is also apparent that rifting can take place without extensive uplift; in such cases it may be the convective processes in the underlying asthenosphere which are causing the extension. To rift a continent apart it needs the rifts associated with various possible thermal domes to link together. Morgan (1981, 1983) has suggested that as continents drift slowly over hotspots the hotspots weaken the plate - like a blowtorch impinging on the base - and these weakened zones become the sites of continental rifting.

Rifting: the complete overview

Fig. 4. A. Doming by a mantle plume associated with volcanicity. B. Rifting (rrr junction) is initiated. C. Further development results in two of the rifts developing into an ocean, the third is a failed arm (aulacogen). D. Less likely is that all three arms develop into oceans. E. A common situation is that the failed arm develops into a major river system feeding the continental margin. F. Expansion of oceans on a finite earth is not possible: there must be plate subduction, somewhere, sometime. G. Closure of oceans results in island arc development above the subduction zone. H. Continued closure results in collision with major fold and thrust belts. But often the failed arm (aulocogen) is still preserved.

Burke & Whiteman (1973), following the doming hypothesis, suggested that in these domal regions, three rifts would develop, forming an 'rrr' triple junction. Although it is possible that all three rifts might develop into an ocean ('RRR'), it is more likely that two of these rifts would develop into an ocean ('RRr'), leaving the third rift as a 'failed arm'. They demonstrated / speculated that on many continents it was possible to recognise these RRr junctions. The 'failed arm' rift would eventually subside as the thermal anomaly decayed and become the site of a major depositional basin, or a major river channel and delta. The Benue Trough in Nigeria is regarded as an example of such a failed arm following the opening of the S. Atlantic. When oceans eventually close it is possible to recognise these failed arms as depositional basins oriented perpendicular to the collision mountain belt (most basins tend to be aligned parallel to mountain belts). These are termed 'aulacogens'.