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ABSTRACT: Some Thoughts on Future Directions in Margin Research

John C. Mutter

Looking through the abstracts of presentations for this symposium, we see a science in transition. The quarter century since plate tectonic theory provided geoscience with a guiding framework in which to carry forward research into global tectonic phenomenon has witnessed a flourishing of research into the structure and evolution of continental margins. Margin evolution can now be placed firmly within this theoretical construct, thereby providing one of the key elaborations of the original theory that has given it its strength and value. What, then, is the next stage? Are we in a period of "normal" science characterized by the detailed verification of an established paradigm, or can we hope for a really new direction?

Two approaches seem to present themselves. One is to focus attention on anomalies--things that don't quite fit or are not very easily covered by the present paradigm. "Volcanic" passive margins don't fit very well within the simple kinematic statement of plate tectonics, nor do eustasy and its effect on sedimentary sequences. While study of these square pegs in the round hole of plate theory may not bring us to a new paradigm, they might well provide significant modifications to the current wisdom.

Perhaps a more fruitful approach is to propose that we are at a point in the development of our science at which the era of verification of the plate tectonic paradigm is sufficiently mature (perhaps even at its end) that the proper direction now is to establish a rigorous physical basis for the phenomena that are kinematically described by plate theory. The objective should be to create a higher order theory and thereby illuminate these known phenomena. Numerical and analytical modeling of deformational processes, magma generation, and migration are making leading contributions to this endeavor. The great potential of such studies is that, in attempting to gain a physical understanding of the discoveries we have made, they can take us well beyond the confines of those discoveries--pe haps even to a new paradigm.

Future directions for margin research must include major programs of exploration to gather the necessary data. Such programs will be most effective if they represent integral components of multifaceted studies designed to construct and test physically self-consistent models describing the fundamental processes governing margin evolution. The MARGINS Research Initiative, a program sponsored by the National Research Council, is currently attempting to develop long-term science plans for margins research within the framework of this philosophy.

AAPG Search and Discovery Article #91003©1990 AAPG Annual Convention, San Francisco, California, June 3-6, 1990