The discovery in the 1970s that some low-angled faults have an extensional or normal sense of displacement stemmed from extensional systems in the continental crust, exemplified by the Basin and Range Province of western North America. Yet the largest extensional systems on Earth are those associated with mid-ocean ridges, and in the 1980s some of those were shown to involve low-angled detachments too. Michael Cheadle and Craig Grimes (University of Wyoming and Mississippi State University, USA) review the latest word on oceanic extensional complexes revealed at the AGO Chapman Conference in May 2010 (Cheadle, M. & Grimes, C. 2010. To fault or not to fault. Nature Geoscience, v. 3, p.454-456). As in continental extension, this kind of deformation at divergent margins may produce core complexes uplifted as a result of tectonic unroofing by low-angled detachments, thereby revealing oceanic mantle lithosphere on the ocean floor. Such peculiarities seem to be absent from fast spreading ridges such as the East Pacific Rise and occur where spreading is slow. They are best developed where spreading is starved of magma injection to produce the classic sheeted-dyke complexes of the middle oceanic crust, and with unusually thick oceanic lithosphere. Yet the ocean floor must spread at these localities, and that is achieved by extensional tectonics that accommodates up to 125 km of spreading with next to no magmatism: 4 Ma-worth of spreading.
For extensional faults to develop into low-angled detachments rocks must be weak, otherwise simple steep, domino-style faults would form. Penetration of seawater down faults weakens oceanic lithosphere through hydration reactions that produce clays and serpentines, which encourage the formation of ductile shear zones. Interestingly, some of the largest hydrothermal systems on the mid-Atlantic Ridge coincide with core complexes, and exude hydrogen – a product of serpentinisation – as well as methane and metal-rich brines.