Geophysical studies of the West Antarctic Rift System Journal Article uri icon



  • The West Antarctic rift system extends over a 3000 × 750 km, largely ice covered area from the Ross Sea to the base of the Antarctic Peninsula, comparable in area to the Basin and Range and the East African rift system. A spectacular rift shoulder scarp along which peaks reach 4–5 km maximum elevation marks one flank and extends from northern Victoria Land‐Queen Maud Mountains to the Ellsworth‐Whitmore‐Horlick Mountains. The rift shoulder has maximum present physiographic relief of 5 km in the Ross Embayment and 7 km in the Ellsworth Mountains‐Byrd Subglacial Basin area. The Transantarctic Mountains part of the rift shoulder (and probably the entire shoulder) has been interpreted as rising since about 60 Ma, at episodic rates of ∼1 km/m.y., most recently since mid‐Pliocene time, rather than continuously at the mean rate of 100 m/m.y. The rift system is characterized by bimodal alkaline volcanic rocks ranging from at least Oligocene to the present. These are exposed asymmetrically along the rift flanks and at the south end of the Antarctic Peninsula. The trend of the Jurassic tholeiites (Ferrar dolerites, Kirkpatric basalts) marking the Jurassic Transantarctic rift is coincident with exposures of the late Cenozoic volcanic rocks along the section of the Transantarctic Mountains from northern Victoria Land to the Horlick Mountains. The Cenozoic rift shoulder diverges here from the Jurassic tholeiite trend, and the tholeiites are exposed continuously (including the Dufek intrusion) along the lower‐ elevation (1–2 km) section of Transantarctic Mountains to the Weddell Sea. Widely spaced aeromagnetic profiles in West Antarctica indicate the absence of Cenozoic volcanic rocks in the ice covered part of the Whitmore‐Ellsworth‐Mountain block and suggest their widespread occurrence beneath the western part of the ice sheet overlying the Byrd Subglacial Basin. A German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR)‐U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) aeromagnetic survey over the Ross Sea continental shelf indicates rift fabric and suggests numerous submarine volcanoes along discrete NNW trending zones. A Bouguer anomaly range of approximately 200 (+50 to −150) mGal having 4–7 mGal/km gradients where measured in places marks the rift shoulder from northern Victoria Land possibly to the Ellsworth Mountains (where data are too sparse to determine maximum amplitude and gradient). The steepest gravity gradients across the rift shoulder require high density (mafic or ultramafic?) rock within the crust as well as at least 12 km of thinner crust beneath the West Antarctic rift system in contrast to East Antarctica. Sparse land seismic data reported along the rift shoulder, where velocities are greater than 7 km/s, and marine data indicating velocities above 7 km/s beneath the Ross Sea continental shelf support this interpretation. The maximum Bouguer gravity range in the Pensacola Mountains area of the Transantarctic Mountains is only about 130 mGal with a maximum 2 mGal/km gradient, which can be explained solely by 8 km of crustal thickening. Large offset seismic profiles over the Ross Sea shelf collected by the German Antarctic North Victoria Land Expedition V (GANOVEX V) combined with earlier USGS and other results indicate 17–21 km thickness for the crust beneath the Ross Sea shelf which we interpret as evidence of extended rifted continental crust. A regional positive Bouguer anomaly (0 to +50 mGal), the width of the rift, extends from the Ross Sea continental shelf throughout the Ross Embayment and Byrd Subglacial Basin area of the West Antarctic rift system and indicates that the Moho is approximately 20 km deep tied to the seismic results (probably coincident with the top of the asthenosphere) rather than the 30 km reported in earlier interpretations. The interpretation of horst and graben structures in the Ross Sea, made from marine seismic reflection data, probably can be extended throughout the rift (i.e., the Ross Ice shelf and the Byrd Subglacial Basin areas). The near absence of earthquakes in the West Antarctic rift system probably results from a combination of primarily sparse seismograph coverage and, secondarily, suppression of earthquakes by the ice sheet (e.g., Johnston, 1987) and very high seismicity shortly after deglaciation in the Ross Embayment followed by abnormally low seismicity at present (e.g., Muir Wood, 1989). The evidence of high temperatures at shallow depth beneath the Ross Sea continental shelf and adjacent Transantarctic Mountains is supportive of thermal uplift of the mountains associated with lateral heat conduction from the rift and can possibly also explain the volcanism, rifting, and high elevation of the entire rift shoulder to the Ellsworth‐Horlick‐Whitmore Mountains. We infer that the Gondwana breakup and the West Antarctic rift are part of a continuously propagating rift that started in the Jurassic when Africa separated from East Antarctica (including the failed Jurassic Transantarctic rift). Rifting proceeded clockwise around East Antarctica to the separation of New Zealand and the Campbell Plateau about 85–95 Ma and has continued (with a spreading center jump) to its present location in the Ross Embayment and West Antarctica. The Cenozoic activity of the West Antarctic rift system appears to be continuous in time with rifting in the same area that began only in the late Mesozoic. Although the mechanism for rifting is not completely explained, we suggest a combination of the flexural rigidity model (Stem and ten Brink, 1989) proposed for the Ross Embayment and the thermal plume or hot spot concepts. The propagating rift may have been “captured” by the thermal plume.

publication date

  • December 1, 1991

has restriction

  • closed

Date in CU Experts

  • May 19, 2015 3:58 AM

Full Author List

  • Behrendt JC; LeMasurier WE; Cooper AK; Tessensohn F; Tréhu A; Damaske D

author count

  • 6

Other Profiles

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 0278-7407

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 1944-9194

Additional Document Info

start page

  • 1257

end page

  • 1273


  • 10


  • 6