Seaward-dipping reflectors (SDRs) have long been recognized as a ubiquitous feature of volcanic passive margins, yet their evolution is much debated, and even the subject of the nature of the underlying crust is contentious. This uncertainty significantly restricts our understanding of continental breakup and ocean basin–forming processes. Using high-fidelity reflection data from offshore Argentina, we observe that the crust containing the SDRs has similarities to oceanic crust, albeit with a larger proportion of extrusive volcanics, variably interbedded with sediments. Densities derived from gravity modeling are compatible with the presence of magmatic crust beneath the outer SDRs. When these SDR packages are restored to synemplacement geometry we observe that they thicken into the basin axis with a nonfaulted, diffuse termination, which we associate with dikes intruding into initially horizontal volcanics. Our model for SDR formation invokes progressive rotation of these horizontal volcanics by subsidence driven by isostasy in the center of the evolving SDR depocenter as continental lithosphere is replaced by more dense oceanic lithosphere. The entire system records the migration of >10-km-thick new magmatic crust away from a rapidly subsiding but subaerial incipient spreading center at rates typical of slow oceanic spreading processes. Our model for new magmatic crust can explain SDR formation on magma-rich margins globally, but the estimated crustal thickness requires elevated mantle temperatures for their formation.

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