Normal faults are ubiquitous on mid-ocean ridges and are expected to develop increasing offset with reduced spreading rate as the proportion of tectonic extension increases. Numerous long-lived detachment faults that form megamullions with large-scale corrugations have been identified on magma-poor mid-ocean ridges, but recent studies suggest, counterintuitively, that they may be associated with elevated magmatism. We present numerical models and geological data to show that these detachments occur when ~30%–50% of total extension is accommodated by magmatic accretion and that there is significant magmatic accretion in the fault footwalls. Under these low-melt conditions, magmatism may focus unevenly along the spreading axis to create an irregular brittle-plastic transition where detachments root, thus explaining the origin of the enigmatic corrugations. Morphological and compositional characteristics of the oceanic lithosphere suggested by this study provide important new constraints to assess the distribution of magmatic versus tectonic extension along mid-ocean ridges.

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