Category Archives: Publishing

Plate tectonics drive tropical reef biodiversity dynamics

A new paper is out in Nature Communications – a study by Fabien Leprieur and co-authors (including me) on how plate tectonics influences the biodiversity dynamics of tropical reefs. Previously published paleo-shoreline estimates (see data on Github and Heine et al paper) have were used as base to model paleo-bathymetry and time-dependent spatial diversification patterns of tropical marine reefs – here’s the abstract:

The Cretaceous breakup of Gondwana strongly modified the global distribution of shallow tropical seas reshaping the geographic configuration of marine basins. However, the links between tropical reef availability, plate tectonic processes and marine biodiversity distribution patterns are still unknown. Here, we show that a spatial diversification model constrained by absolute plate motions for the past 140 million years predicts the emergence and movement of diversity hotspots on tropical reefs. The spatial dynamics of tropical reefs explains marine fauna diversification in the Tethyan Ocean during the Cretaceous and early Cenozoic, and identifies an eastward movement of ancestral marine lineages towards the Indo-Australian Archipelago in the Miocene. A mechanistic model based only on habitat-driven diversification and dispersal yields realistic predictions of current biodiversity patterns for both corals and fishes. As in terrestrial systems, we demonstrate that plate tectonics played a major role in driving tropical marine shallow reef biodiversity dynamics.

The paper is available as open-access on the Nature Communications website. Associated data can be downloaded from Figshare.

Rift migration and asymmetric continental margins

Yesterday, our paper on rift migration and formation of asymmetric continental margins was published in Nature Communications. Using high resolution forward numerical models we investigate the influence of extension velocities on the evolution of continental rifts to passive margins. We find a strong correlation between margin width, asymmetry and extension velocity, illustrated by the conjugate South Atlantic passive margins. Our models can explain the highly asymmetric and hyperextended passive continental margins, further, we propose that large amounts of crustal material during the rift migration phase are transferred from one side of the rift to the other, challenging conventional ideas about passive margin formation. This means that large parts of the outer margins off West Africa could actually be composed of crustal material originating from the conjugate Brazilian margin.

(a–e) Fault kinematics of the model. Active faults are shown in red and inactive faults in black. Brittle faults are indicated with solid lines, ductile shear zones with dashed lines. The wide margin is formed through rift migration and sequentially active faulting towards the future ocean. Hence, thick undisturbed pre-salt sediments pre-dating break-up are predicted by our model to be deposited in the landward part of the margin (d,e). The final crustal structure of the model reproduces the strong asymmetry (f) of the conjugate Campos Basin–Angola margins (modified after ref. 5). Note that the geosection is drawn without vertical exaggeration at the same scale as the model (scale bar in the lower right corner is 50 km long). Vertical scale is in seconds two-way travel time (TWT). Source: Brune, Heine, Perez-Gussinye & Sobolev, Nature Communications (, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License (

The GFZ Potsdam has also issued a press release related to this [in German].

Citation: Sascha Brune, Christian Heine, Marta Pérez-Gussinyé & Stephan V. Sobolev, 2014, “Rift migration explains continental margin asymmetry and crustal hyper-extension”, Nature Communications, 5, doi: 10.1038/ncomms5014. The paper is openly accessible, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Update 1 (2014-06-11):

Nature Comms’ Article metrics are a pretty cool indicator for immediate online impact (and I believe future citations). By now a few of the standard science news outlets have picked up the press releases (changing by the minute. Here’s a static (and human) collection of the news around the article (including some of the Altmetric links):

Continents breaking apart

Watch this space for a new paper on the formation of hyperextended margins which should be out in the next week or two. Below a photo from the Gulf of Suez (Hamman Faraun fault block north of Abu Zenima) taken during a field trip a few years back, which illustrates how a continental rift looks like just before continents break apart.

Overview map of the Gulf of Suez (GeoMapApp) with location (red circle) and view direction (red arrow) of the photo below.

Overview map with hillshade relief of the Gulf of Suez region (GeoMapApp) with location (red circle) and view direction (red arrow) of the photo below.


A view of the northern Gulf of Suez looking northwest from the Sinai margin towards the African margin. Picture licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

A view of the northern Gulf of Suez looking northwest from the Sinai  towards the African margin. This is how the very young South Atlantic could have looked like in the Cretaceous. The photo is taken from the Hamman Faraun fault block north of Abu Zenima (Openstreetmap link) . Picture licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

The Saharan Atlantic ocean makes ripples (edited)

Our  “Saharan Atlantic ocean” paper has just been featured in GEOLOGY’s “Research Focus” article in the March issue. The focus article is entitled “Roadmap to continental rupture: Is obliquity the route to success?” is written by Cythia Ebinger and Jolante van Wijk and is available as open access. This is fantastic news!

Update #1,2,3,4,5: So by now, there’s been quite some science (and popular) media buzz with both Sydney Uni and GFZ Potsdam having released press info on our article – it’s been overwhelming. Spiegel Online (one of the largest German online news outlets) & Sueddeutsche Zeitung (also one of the largest papers) reported in Germany even going a bit beyond the standard press release texts. As Sascha and I hoped, our hypothetical “Saharan Ocean” image (see here) facilitated the take up of the story quite a bit.

According to Altmetric, the article is currently ranking as #7 in terms of impact which makes it one of the highest ever scores for articles published in GEOLOGY.

Links here (I’m updating those from time to time):

Why there is no Saharan Atlantic Ocean

Our paper “Oblique rifting along the Equatorial Atlantic ocean: Why there is no Saharan Atlantic Ocean” (Doi: 10.1130/G35082.1) is now available online, I believe a pre-issue publication listing will follow this week. We use plate kinematic and 3D numerical modelling to explain why the Equatorial Atlantic ocean formed in the Early Cretaceous time (around 120-100 Million years ago). Here’s a summary of the paper in simple terms:

Every schoolchild can recognise continents or parts of them based on their shape. But why does Italy look like a boot, why is Australia an island-like continent and what sculpted Africa’s margins? In this study we address the underlying processes that shaped Earth’s continental plates when the last era of supercontinents came to an end, between about 150 and 100 My years ago.

At the time when dinosaur evolution peaked, the southern continents were still united in the supercontinent Gondwana. However, vast continental rift systems comparable to the present East African rift, extended between present-day South America and Africa as well as within the African continent. These rifts are preserved as deep sedimentary basins in the subsurface of the African continent and along continental margins and document processes where continental crust is stretched like chewing gum. The so-called South Atlantic and West African rift systems were about to split the African-South American part of Gondwana North-South into nearly equal halfs, generating a South Atlantic and a Saharan Atlantic Ocean (see Image). In a dramatic plate tectonic twist, however, a competing rift along the present-day South American and African Equatorial Atlantic margins, won over the West African rift, causing it to become extinct, avoiding the break up of the African continent and the formation of a Saharan Atlantic ocean.

Our work elucidates the reasons behind the success and failure of these rift systems by coupling plate tectonic and advanced 3D numerical models of continental lithosphere deformation. We find that rift obliquity acts as a selector between successful and aborted rift systems, explaining why the South and Equatorial Atlantic Ocean basins formed and other rifts became aborted. Our modelling also sheds lights on the dynamics of rifting, suggesting that feedback loops caused a ten-fold acceleration in the velocities of the South American plate once the Equatorial Rift System had sufficiently weakened the last remaining continental bridge between both plates.

One hundred years after the German scientist Alfred Wegener developed first ideas of continental drift, this study provides a new keystone in understanding the rules which govern continental extension and tectonic plate motion ultimately sculpting Earth’s continents into the shapes as we recognise them today.

The  abstract of the paper:

Rifting between large continental plates results in either continental breakup and the formation of conjugate passive margins, or rift abandonment and a set of aborted rift basins. The nonlinear interaction between key parameters such as plate boundary configuration, lithospheric architecture, and extension geometry determines the dynamics of rift evolution and ultimately selects between successful or failed rifts. In an attempt to evaluate and quantify the contribution of the rift geometry, we analyze the Early Cretaceous extension between Africa and South America that was preceded by ∼20–30 m.y. of extensive intracontinental rifting prior to the final separation between the two plates. While the South Atlantic and Equatorial Atlantic conjugate passive margins continued into seafloor-spreading mode, forming the South Atlantic Ocean basin, Cretaceous African intraplate rifts eventually failed soon after South America broke away from Africa. We investigate the spatiotemporal dynamics of rifting in these domains through a joint plate kinematic and three-dimensional forward numerical modeling approach, addressing (1) the dynamic competition of Atlantic and African extensional systems, (2) two-stage kinematics of the South Atlantic Rift System, and (3) the acceleration of the South America plate prior to final breakup. Oblique rifts are mechanically favored because they require both less strain and less force in order to reach the plastic yield limit. This implies that rift obliquity can act as selector between successful ocean basin formation and failed rifts, explaining the success of the highly oblique Equatorial Atlantic rift and ultimately inhibiting the formation of a Saharan Atlantic Ocean. We suggest that thinning of the last continental connection between Africa and South America produced a severe strength-velocity feedback responsible for the observed increase in South America plate velocity.

The associated data for the plate kinematic model is available full and for free as open data from the pages ( of my earlier South Atlantic paper in More detailed explanations and animations will follow later.

Lastly, here’s our guess for how the world might look liked like if a Saharan Atlantic ocean had formed:

The world as it might have looked like if the West African Rift system had been "successful" in forming a "Saharan Atlantic Ocean basin". We explain in our paper why this did not happen.

The world as it might have looked like if the West African Rift system had been “successful” in forming a “Saharan Atlantic Ocean basin”. We explain in our paper why this did not happen. Made with GPlates and image manipulation.