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The theory of plate tectonics offers a fresh opportunity to interpret the evolution of sedimentary basins in terms of changing plate interactions and shifting plate junctures. Although plate-tectonic theory lays primary emphasis on horizontal movements of the lithosphere, large vertical movements are also implied in response to changes in the thickness of crust, in the thermal condition of lithosphere, and in the isostatic balance of lithosphere over asthenosphere. As thick sedimentation requires either an initial depression or progressive subsidence to proceed, the auxiliary vertical movements largely control the evolution of sedimentary basins. Ancillary geographic changes related to the governing horizontal movements also affect patterns of sedimentation strongly.

The geosynclinal terminology used prior to the advent of plate tectonics is inadequate to describe fully the plate-tectonic settings of sedimentary basins. Basins can be described instead in terms of the type of substratum beneath the basin, the proximity of the basin to a plate margin, and the type of plate juncture nearest to the basin. Intraplate settings of oceanic or continental character contrast with zones of plate interaction, which include those of divergent, convergent, and transform motions and within each of which the underlying crustal structure is or may be complex. The evolution of a sedimentary basin thus can be viewed as the result of a succession of discrete plate-tectonic settings and plate interactions whose effects blend into a continuum of development.

Oceanic basins contain an assemblage of diachronous facies whose relations are controlled by thermal subsidence of the lithosphere as it moves away from midoceanic rises. Rifted continental margins undergo successive stages of structural evolution as the following features are formed: prerift arch, rift valley, proto-oceanic gulf, narrow ocean, and open ocean. Sedimentary phases related to each stage are components of the rifted-margin prism of strata that masks the continent-opean interface beneath a continental terrace- slope-rise association or a progradational continental embankment. Marginal fracture ridges along marginal offsets and aulacogens along failed arms of triple junctions locally break the continuity of rifted-margin prisms. Sedimentary basins associated with arc-trench systems where oceanic lithosphere is consumed include trenches beyond the subduction complex beneath the trench slope break, forearc basins in the arc- trench gap, intra-arc basins within the magmatic arc, and interarc basins or retroarc basins in the backarc area. Interarc basins are oceanic basins between a migratory intraoceanic arc and a remnant arc, whereas retroarc basins rest on continental basement adjacent to a foreland fold-thrust belt behind a continental margin arc. Peripheral basins adjacent to suture belts formed by crustal collision occur in an analogous foreland setting between orogen and craton, but in front of a colliding magmatic arc. Retroarc basins and peripheral basins both imply partial subduction of continental lithosphere. Intracontinental basins include infracontinental types, beneath which incipient continental separation gave rise to crust of transitional thickness, as well as supracontinental types.

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