Elevated, passive continental margins: Not rift shoulders, but expressions of episodic, post-rift burial and exhumation
Many studies of elevated, passive continental margins (EPCMs) assume that their characteristic, large-scale morphology with high-level plateaux and deeply incised valleys has persisted since rifting and crustal separation, and that the absence of post-rift sediments is evidence of non-deposition. The high mountains in West Greenland, however, expose evidence of km-scale, post-rift subsidence, and recent studies showed that typical EPCM morphology with elevated plateaux formed c. 50 Myr after breakup through a process of uplift and dissection of a regional, post-rift erosion surface. Since the West Greenland margin shares all the morphological characteristics of EPCMs, the results from West Greenland lead us to question the common assumption that EPCMs have remained high since the onset of continental separation. We present published evidence of post-rift burial followed by uplift and exhumation from a number of EPCMs and their adjacent basins to support the notion that EPCMs are not permanent highs and that their morphology is unrelated to rifting and continental breakup. Geodynamic models that explain EPCMs as permanent highs since the time of rifting require either no lithospheric mantle extension below extending crust or effective elastic thicknesses > 100 km. Such models are, however, not consistent with the subsidence history inferred from actual rifts and their margins. Geodynamic models using low elastic thicknesses and a much more uniform distribution of strain within the lithosphere are more consistent with observations of early post-rift behaviour, but some additional process is needed to uplift the margins later. We suggest that EPCMs represent anticlinal, lithospheric folds formed under compression where an abrupt change in crustal or lithospheric thickness occurs between cratons and rift basins. We propose that EPCMs are expressions of episodes of post-rift burial followed by compression-induced uplift and exhumation; one episode of uplift results in erosion of the region to produce a low-relief surface near the level of the adjacent, opening ocean, and a second (or more) episode(s) raises the plateau to its present elevation, after which the plateau is dissected by fluvial and possibly glacial erosion.