Few constraints on the timing, amount and distribution of lithospheric extension associated with flood-basalt magmatism were available from the southern Main Ethiopian rift system, where the base of the Cenozoic volcanic succession is exposed by faulting. New structural observations, together with K–Ar and 40Ar/39Ar geochronology data from a transect of the Chamo basin–Amaro horst–Galana basin, show that basins are bounded by faults with steep dips at the surface, and the stratal dips of Eocene–Recent volcanic and sedimentary units are generally less than 20°. Little or no extension accompanied the extrusion of a 0.5 to 1 km thick sequence of transitional tholeiitic flood basalts between 45 and 35 Ma. Stratigraphical correlations with basins to the north and southwest suggest that felsic eruption(s) at c. 37 Ma blanketed much of the southern Ethiopian plateau region with a felsic tuff unit. A second, less widespread, episode of alkali basalt and trachyte volcanism occurred between 18 and 11 Ma, and Recent alkali basalt volcanism occurs within the Chamo basin. The attitude, distribution, and diversity of Neo–gene–Recent volcanic and sedimentary strata within the Chamo and Galana basins indicate that crustal extension, basin subsidence, and rift flank uplift began during or after the second flood-basalt phase. Based on cross-sectional reconstruction to the top of the Oligocene tuff, we estimate a minimum of 12 km crustal extension (β ≈ 1.12), and infer that maximum extension across the southern Ethiopian rift is less than 25 km. Extension is primarily accommodated by slip along the border faults bounding the asymmetric basins, with small amounts of extension occurring within the hanging walls. Crude estimates of original basalt layer thickness prior to erosion in the Amaro region suggest that roughly comparable volumes of basaltic material erupted during the two episodes of flood-basalt magmatism (45–35 Ma and 18–11 Ma). The small amounts of lithospheric extension and the large volumes of magma estimated in this study of the southern Main Ethiopian rift suggest a very hot plume and/or efficient thinning of the mantle lithosphere from below by mantle plume processes during the two discrete episodes of flood-basalt volcanism.

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