Spatio-temporal evolution of strain accumulation derived from multi-scale observations of Late Jurassic rifting in the northern North Sea: A critical test of models for lithospheric extension
We integrate observations of lithospheric extension over a wide range of spatial and temporal scales within the northern North Sea basin and critically review the extent to which existing theories of lithospheric deformation can account for these observations. Data obtained through a prolonged period of hydrocarbon exploration and production has yielded a dense and diverse data set over the entire Viking Graben and its flanking platform areas. These data show how syn-rift accommodation within the basin varied in space and time with sub-kilometer-scale spatial resolution and a temporal resolution of 2–3 Myr. Regional interpretations of 2D seismic reflection, refraction and gravity data for this area have also been published and provide an image of total basin wide stretching for the entire crust. These image data are combined with published strain rate inversion results obtained from tectonic subsidence patterns to constrain the spatio-temporal evolution of strain accumulation throughout the lithosphere during the 40 Myr (170–130 Ma) period of Late Jurassic extension across this basin. For the first 25–30 Myr, strain localisation dominated basin development with strain rates at the eventual rift axis increasing while strain rates over the flanking areas declined. As strain rates across the whole basin were consistently very low (< 3 × 10- 16 s- l), thermally induced strength loss cannot explain this phenomenon. The strain localisation is manifest in the near-surface by a systematic migration of fault activity. The pattern and timing of this migration are inconsistent with flexural bending stresses exerting an underlying control, especially when estimates of flexural rigidity for this area are considered. The best explanation for what is observed in this time period is a coupling between near-surface strain localisation, driven by brittle (or plastic) failure, and the evolving thermal structure of the lithosphere. We demonstrate this process using a continuum mechanics model for normal fault growth that incorporates the strain rate-dependence of frictional strength observed in laboratory studies. During the final 10 Myr of basin formation, strain accumulation was focused within the axis and strain rates declined rapidly. Replacement of weak crust by stronger mantle material plus crustal buoyancy forces can adequately explain this decline.