The continental margin of the northern South China Sea is considered to be a magma-poor rifted margin. This work uses new seismic, bathymetric, gravity, and magnetic data to reveal how extensively magmatic processes have reshaped the latter continental margin. Widespread hydrothermal vent complexes and magmatic edifices such as volcanoes, igneous sills, lava flows, and associated domes are confirmed in the broader area of the northern South China Sea. Newly identified hydrothermal vents have crater- and mound-shaped surface expressions, and occur chiefly above igneous sills and volcanic edifices. Detailed stratigraphic analyses of volcanoes and hydrothermal vents suggest that magmatic activity took place in discrete phases between the early Miocene and the Quaternary. Importantly, the occurrence of hydrothermal vents close to the present seafloor, when accompanied by shallow igneous sills, suggest that fluid seepage is still active, well after main phases of volcanism previously documented in the literature. After combining geophysical and geochemical data, this study postulates that the extensive post-rift magmatism in the northern South China Sea is linked to the effect of a mantle plume over a long time interval. We propose that prolonged magmatism resulted in contact metamorphism in carbon-rich sediments, producing large amounts of hydrothermal fluid along the northern South China Sea. Similar processes are expected in parts of magma-poor margins in association with CO2/CH4 and heat flow release into sea water and underlying strata.

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