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Journal of the Geological Society of the Philippines Vol. 64 No.

1 January-December 2009

New Definition of Philippine Plate Boundaries and Implications to the Philippine Mobile Belt

Alfredo Mahar Francisco A. Lagmay1, Ma. Luisa G. Tejada1, Rolando E. Pena, Mario A. Aurelio1,
Brian Davy2, Sevillano David3, Elmer Billedo3
1
National Institute of Geological Sciences, College of Science, University of the Philippines, Diliman,
Quezon City 1101, Philippines
2
Geological and Nuclear Science, New Zealand
3
Mines and Geoscience Bureau, J. Fernandez Bldg., MGB Comp. North Ave. Diliman Quezon City

Abstract

The Philippine Mobile Belt (PMB) is a zone of intense deformation and active seismicity between
convergent zones bounding the Philippine Archipelago. This zone was first defined by Gervasio (1967) to
distinguish the seismically active portion of the Philippine Archipelago from the southwestern region of
the Philippines. According to Gervasio, the mobile belt, includes North Luzon, South Luzon, West
Visayas, Northwest Mindanao, Bicol Region, East Visayas, Zamboanga, Cotabato and the rest of
Mindanao with Catanduanes Island representing the east outer zone of the PMB. The aseismic region,
on the other hand, is constituted by Palawan and Mindoro. In the plate tectonics framework, the PMB
represents a zone of deformation between surrounding major plates, namely: the Philippine Sea,
Eurasian (Sunda Block) and Indo-Australian Plates. Only Palawan and Mindoro, the aseismic regions of
the Philippines are part of the Eurasian Plate. Based on recent Global Positioning System, gravity, and
seismicity data, we reinterpret Philippine Plate boundaries that define the extent of the Philippine
Mobile Belt. The eastern section of North Luzon, heretofore described as part of the PMB, moves in a
northwest direction with similar velocity as the Philippine Sea Plate. This suggests that the
northwestward motion of the Philippine Sea Plate at the eastern margin of Luzon is mainly decoupled
along the left-lateral Polilio-Philippine fault zone. The Polilio-Philippine fault is a zone of intense
seismicity and is herein regarded as the crustal tear generated by the ongoing collision of the Benham
Rise with Luzon starting from 20 Ma. This interpretation considers the eastern section of North Luzon as
part of the Philippine Sea Plate and has major implications to the delineation of plate boundaries of the
Philippines.

Introduction

The Philippine archipelago is a mature island arc that is at present being accreted to the eastern margin
of the Eurasian Plate (Sunda Block) (Ben-Avraham, 1978; Hamilton, 1979; McCabe et al., 1982; Holloway,
1982; Karig, 1983; Rangin et al., 1985; Pubellier et al., 1996). It is primarily composed of a complex
mixture of oceanic crust, marine sedimentary sequences, arc volcanics, (Rangin et al., 1985; Geary et al.,
1988; Encarnacion, 2004; Jr. et al., 2004), and microcontinental fragments rifted from southeast China
(Hamilton, 1979; Holloway, 1982; McCabe et al., 1982; Taylor and Hayes, 1983; Encarnacion et al., 1995;
Encarnacion and Mukasa, 1997). These terranes formed the Philippine archipelago through plate
convergence of the Philippine Sea Plate (western margin of the Pacific Plate domain), Eurasian Plate and
the Indo-Australian Plate (Figure 1).

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Journal of the Geological Society of the Philippines Vol. 64 No. 1 January-December 2009

Figure 1 : A) Map showing the main plates surrounding the Philippine Archipelago. B) Major tectonic
features of the Philippines. The gray shaded area is the Philippine Mobile Belt (PMB) of Gervasio (1967).
The stippled gray shaded area is the Palawan-Mindoro continental block. AR= Abra River Fault;
VA=Vigan Agao Fault; C=Cordilleran Fault; P=Pugo Fault; D=Digdig Fault; LD=Laur Dingalan Fault.

The entire archipelago is bounded by a system of subduction zones, collision zones, and wrench faults.
These structures are remnant features of the complex geodynamic history of the island arc as well as
structures of ongoing tectonic processes. The actively deforming region of the Philippines is a zone
known as the Philippine Mobile Belt or PMB (Figure 1; Gervasio, 1967). This deformed and seismically
active region is bounded by subduction zones of opposite polarities. At the eastern border of the
Philippines is a west dipping subduction zone known as the Philippine Trench. Generally east-dipping
subduction zones on the western margin of the PMB are the Manila, Negros, Sulu, and Cotabato
trenches. In between these west and east dipping subduction zones is the approximately 1400 km long
left-lateral Philippine Fault (Allen, 1962; Barrier et al., 1991; Aurelio et al., 1991), which straddles the
entire length of the PMB. In this region of Southeast Asia, these tectonic structures largely
accommodate the stress imparted by the ongoing northwest movement of the Philippine Sea Plate
towards Eurasia (Fitch, 1972; Morgan, 1972; Karig, 1975; Seno, 1977; Chase, 1978; Ranken et al., 1984;
Huchon, 1986). To the southwest of the PMB is the Palawan-Mindoro block, an aseismic region of
continental affinity (Hamilton, 1979; Holloway, 1982).

The trenches bounding the eastern and western part of the archipelago are major sites of seismicity
(Figure 2). These define the regions where marginal basins surrounding the Philippines are consumed.

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Journal of the Geological Society of the Philippines Vol. 64 No. 1 January-December 2009

The South China Sea, Sulu Sea and the Celebes Sea Basins subduct along the east-dipping Manila, Negros
and Cotabato trenches, respectively. The Sulu Trench is another locus where the seafloor of the Sulu Sea
is consumed. In the eastern margin of the archipelago, the Philippine Trench is where the Philippine Sea
Plate is consumed (Rangin, 1991; Aurelio, 2000).

Figure 2. Plot of seismicity in the


Philippines from 1973-2006. Size of
circle scaled to magnitude while the
scale bar represents depth. Data from
USGS Advanced National Seismic
System (ANSS) and plotted using
Generic Mapping Tools (GMT).

A major collision event between the eastern border of Luzon and the Benham Rise, a large oceanic
plateau, (Figure 1) occurred during the Early Miocene (Bautista et al., 2001; Lallemand et al., 1998;
Sajona et al., 1997). The collision is a major episode in the evolution of the Philippines well-preserved in
the stratigraphic (Karig, 1973; Lewis and Hayes, 1983; Florendo, 1994; Bautista et al., 2001) and
structural records (Pinet and Stephan, 1990; Ringenbach et al., 1993), which is supported by new Gravity
and GPS (Rangin et al., 1999; Galgana et al., 2007) data. This paper elucidates the consequences of the
Benham Rise collision and what the new geophysical and GPS data suggest about the demarcation of the
PMB boundaries between the Philippine Sea and Eurasian Plates.

New Geophysical Data

Geophysical Evidence - Gravity Models

The strong 150-180 mgal Bouguer anomaly gradient between the Benham Rise and Luzon marks both an
increase in crustal thickness as well as the presence of localized sedimentary basins associated with
fossil accretionary prisms and relict subduction zone features that were active during the Oligocene
(Lewis and Hayes, 1983). Gravity data modeling for the central Benham Rise show a crustal thickness of

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Journal of the Geological Society of the Philippines Vol. 64 No. 1 January-December 2009

15-18 km (Figure 3D). These values fall at the lower end of the range of crustal thickness expected for a
Large Igneous Province (Coffin and Eldholm, 1994). The crust of Benham Rise is significantly thicker than
the 6-10 km crustal thickness expected for normal oceanic crust.

Figure 3. Gravity profiles of the Benham Rise region. A) Map of Benham Rise showing gravity profile
transects B) Line across the East Luzon Trough, Benham Rise and Molave Spur C) Line 2 across the East
Luzon Trough and the Benham Rise D) Line across the Bicol Saddle and Benham Rise. All transects show
crustal thicknesses greater than normal oceanic crust.

Beneath the East Luzon Trough, the underlying crustal thickness shown by the 2-D gravity model is 12-15
km despite an allowance for approximately 5 km of fossil accreted sediment of density 2.4 gcm -3 on the
inner margin (Figure 3B and 3C). Similarly, the northeast trending profile transecting the Bicol saddle
(Figure 3D), shows a crustal thickness that is at least 15 km, again despite an allowance for
approximately 4 km of overlying accreted sediment. The 2-D models, like the Bouguer anomaly data,
imply that the Benham Rise has been accreted beneath Luzon along both its western and southern
margins.

GPS Data

The first neotectonic model of the Philippines based on combined GPS data, seismicity, topography, and
geology (Figure 4) was presented by Rangin et al. (1999). The model proposes smaller plates subdividing
the PMB: A Luzon plate in the north, a Visayas plate in the southwest

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Journal of the Geological Society of the Philippines Vol. 64 No. 1 January-December 2009

Figure 4. A. Distribution of the major tectonic boundaries and active mobile micro blocks in the
Philippines. GEODYSSEA sites and their acronyms are shown. Estimated velocity vectors are given in mm
yr-1. GPS stations: LA=LAOA, VI=VIRA, PU=PUER, Il=ILOI, ZA=ZAMB, DA=DAVA, TA=TAWA; INF=Infant
Fault; Bi=Bicol peninsula; MC=Bacolod Corridor; VPF=Verde Passage Fault; Ta=Tablas island;
Pa=Palawan island; Zama=Zamboanga Peninsula; NBT=North Borneo Trench; PF=Philippine Fault;
VAW=Vigan Agao Wrench Fault. B. GEODYSSEA GPS vectors with respect to Sundaland (black arrows).
From Rangin et al.,1999.

and an East Philippine Sliver. Specific Euler vectors computed for these plates, are based on two
geodetic stations for the Luzon Plate, and three geodetic stations for the Visayas Plate. The East
Philippine Sliver contains only one GPS station. The latter is inferred to be stable in its northern part but
owing to numerous normal faults that cross-cut this plate in the south, slip rates along the Philippine
Fault are collectively reduced from 35 to 22 mm yr-1 along its border with the proposed Visayas Plate.
Additional distributed deformation within these proposed plates of the PMB was also noted. Geodetic
evidence for 20 mm yr-1 sinistral slip on the Infanta segment of the Philippine fault was cited which
consider both sides of this fault to be parts of the Luzon plate. The two control points in the Visayas
block which should have equal velocity actually differ by 18 mm yr-1, and that the Euler rotation best-fit
to the three velocity vectors leaves residuals up to 13 mm yr-1. Rangin et al., 1999 also propose
subduction at the aseismic Sulu Trench and the seismically active Cotabato Trench, but show these
trenches as terminating in a plate interior, which therefore cannot be rigid (Bird, 2003).

Because of evidence for high strain rates and differential velocities in each of the proposed small plates
(and East Philippine Sliver) at the level of 13-20 mm yr-1, Bird (2003), found the plate subdivisions
proposed by Rangin et al., 1999 too detailed compared with the definitions given for the rest of his
global compilation of plate boundaries. Instead, he designated the entire

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Journal of the Geological Society of the Philippines Vol. 64 No. 1 January-December 2009

Philippine Islands region, except for Palawan as an orogen (Figure 5). This orogen designation
approximately corresponds to the Philippine Mobile Belt of Gervasio (1967). In the map presented by
Bird (2003) the orogen is presented with a replot of the GPS vectors showing the Manila Trench and a
strike-slip connection to the Philippine Trench.

Utilizing regional GPS velocities from Luzon, Philippines, with focal mechanism data from the Harvard
Centroid Moment Tensor (CMT) Catalog, tectonic deformation in the complex plate boundary zone
between the Philippine Sea Plate and Eurasian Plate was estimated by Galgana et al. (2007). In their
paper, major tectonic structures that were found to absorb the plate convergence include the Manila
Trench (20-100 mm yr-1) and East Luzon Trough (9-15 mm yr-1)/Philippine Trench (29-34 mm yr-1), which
accommodate eastward and westward subduction beneath Luzon, respectively; the left-lateral strike-
slip Philippine Fault (20-40 mm yr-1), and its northward extensions, the Northern Cordillera Fault (17-37
mm yr-1), and the Digdig Fault (17-27 mm yr-1). Their analysis further suggests that much of the
Philippine Fault and associated splays are locked to partly coupled, while the Manila and Philippine
trenches appear to be poorly coupled. Luzon is best characterized as a tectonically active plate boundary
zone, comprising six mobile elastic tectonic blocks between two active subduction zones. The Philippine
Fault and associated intra-arc faults accommodate much of the trench parallel component of relative
plate motion (Galgana et al., 2007).

Figure 5. The Philippines orogen


(black outline with cross-
hatching) surrounds the
Philippine Sea (PS) - Eurasian
Plate (Sunda Plate) convergent
plate boundary (heavy colored
lines). Important active faults
plotted with heavy dashed lines:
Philippine trench Pt, Manila
trench Mt, Negros trench Nt, Sulu
trench St, Cotabato trench Ct,
Philippine fault Pf. Geodetic
velocities from Rangin et al., 1999
are plotted relative to SU.
Boundary types are: CCB
continental convergent boundary,
CTF continental transform fault,
CRB continental rift boundary,
OSR oceanic spreading ridge, OTF
oceanic transform fault, OCB
oceanic convergent boundary,
SUB subduction zone. From Bird,
2003.

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Kinematic models derived from geodetic data modeled by Galgana and others (2007) predicts coupling
between Luzon and the Philippine Sea Plate (Figure 6). Similar vectors in the eastern portion of the
North Luzon block (CAG1 and CAG2 modelled blocks) and the Benham Rise-West Philippine Basin
suggest they are moving as a single unit. The smaller magnitude northwest directed vector in the
western part of the North Luzon Block (ILOC block) may be due to decoupling along the Digdig Fault.

Seismicity Data

Seismicity maps in the region of the Benham Rise show a locus of epicenters that border its western and
southern margins. Along the East Luzon Trough are predominantly shallow earthquake hypocenters (see
Figure 2) no more than 100 km deep. These earthquakes are characterized by focal mechanism solutions
typical of faults with thrust and strike-slip motion (Figure 7). Although the thrust motion can be
associated with subduction, the distribution pattern of the hypocenters is not a distinct Benioff Zone
(Figure 8). These strike-slip and thrust faults may also be interpreted as due to the presence of active
tectonic structures east of Luzon and not necessarily that of an active subduction zone. The
interpretation as to whether it is a subduction zone or a zone of seismicity associated with active thrust
and strike-slip faults or even restrained subduction (Bautista et al., 2001) is important in its classification
as a major plate boundary of the Philippines.

In the context of an already accreted Benham Rise determined from the interpretation of new Gravity
data presented in this work, combined GPS and seismic data suggest that the region of the East Luzon
Trough is not a major active plate boundary. Despite persistent seismicity in the region, there is no
significant differential movement between northeast Luzon and the Philippine Sea Plate near the
Benham Rise. The active seismicity and highly coupled nature of northeast Luzon and the Philippine Sea
Plate (Benham Rise Region) is quite unusual for a convergent (subduction) plate boundary especially
considering the fact that the Philippine Sea Plate east of Luzon is moving northwestward at a high
velocity. It appears that bulk of the northwestward motion of the Philippine Sea Plate in the area east of
Luzon is mainly accommodated in the southern margin of the Benham Rise, where a linear pattern of
seismicity within the Bicol Shelf connects the Philippine Trench with the Polilio-Philippine (Laur-
Dingalan) Fault (Figure 7). This tectonic structure characterised by left-lateral strike-slip focal mechanism
solutions is interpreted as a crustal tear developed by the collision of the Benham Rise with Luzon
since 20 Ma. The crustal tear is well defined up to the Pugo Fault and becomes undefined as it enters
the South China Sea because of scattered seismicity in the area.

Because of the collision of the Benham Rise with Northern Luzon, the eastern section of Northern Luzon
moves as an integral part of the Philippine Sea Plate. Its boundary with the PMB is defined by seismicity
data to correspond with the east-west trending Polilio-Philippine Fault. The western extension of this
left-lateral fault possibly connects with the Manila Trench as proposed by Bird (2003).

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Journal of the Geological Society of the Philippines Vol. 64 No. 1 January-December 2009

Figure 6. Relative motions with


respect to Central Luzon (CLUZ)
of the Philippine crustal blocks
after Galgana et al., 2007. GPS
stations and vectors shown only
in or adjacent to the ILOC, CAG1
and CAG2 blocks. Note the
different scales for the measure
vector (blue and model vector
(black).

Figure 7. Map of the eastern


border of Luzon showing the
bathymetry of the Benham Rise.
Plots of the epicenters and focal
mechanism solution data (from
the Advanced National Seismic
System and Harvard Centroid
Moment Tensor archive) show
seismic activity at the trenches
surrounding the west and
southwest portions of the
Plateau. The dashed line is the
trace of the tear produced by the
NW collision of the Benham Rise
with eastern Luzon.

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Journal of the Geological Society of the Philippines Vol. 64 No. 1 January-December 2009

Figure 8. Earthquake hypocenters within 20 km from lines A-A and B-B (see figure 7) projected into the
cross-sectional plane of the transect lines. The hypocenters are mostly shallow focus no more than 100
km deep and do not constitute a well-defined Benioff zone.

Boundary of the Eurasian Plate (Sunda Block) and Philippine Sea Plate

Based on the interpretation of geophysical data on the Benham Rise and North Luzon, the boundary
between the Eurasian Plate, Philippine Sea Plate and the Philippine Mobile Belt is modified. The new
boundary is similar to the plate boundary map of Bird (2003) but without the continuation of the Polilio-
Philippine Fault crustal tear into the Manila Trench, an idea which necessitates further verification.
Descriptions of the plate boundaries in the Philippines are presented in this section.

Philippine Sea Plate and Eurasian Plate boundary

The Eurasian and Philippine Sea Plate boundary starts from the north along the Nankai-Ryukyu Trench
and follows the Longitudinal Valley Fault along the coast of Taiwan and ends at the junction of the
Manila Trench and Polilio-Philippine Fault zone (Figure 9). The PMB is located west of the Polilio-
Philippine Fault zone, squeezed between the Philippine Trench and the Manila, Negros and Cotabato
Trenches.

The northwestward movement of the Philippine Sea Plate is accommodated by subduction along the
Philippine Trench and strike-slip motion of the Polilio-Philippine Fault zone. Stress imparted by motion
of the Philippine Sea Plate in the northern part of Luzon is accommodated by the active left-lateral

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Journal of the Geological Society of the Philippines Vol. 64 No. 1 January-December 2009

Philippine Fault distributed along the Laur-Dingalan, Pugo, Vigan-Aggao, Abra River and Digdig fault
segments (Figure 9).

Philippine Sea Plate and Philippine Mobile Belt Boundary

The Philippine Trench and the Polilio-Philippine Fault marks the boundary between the Philippine Sea
Plate and the PMB. Stress induced by motion of the Philippine Sea Plate is accommodated by subduction
along this trench and by shear partitioning along the Philippine Fault Zone (Barrier et al., 1991) from
south of Mindanao up to Laur-Dingalan, Luzon, where the Philippine Fault meets the Polilio-Philippine
Fault (Figure 9).

Eurasian Plate Philippine Mobile Belt Boundary

The Eurasian Plate, PMB boundary extends from the junction of the Manila Trench and Polilio-Philippine
Fault zone to the Negros and Cotabato Trenches at 4 latitude (Figure 9). The Manila Trench disappears
southward where continental blocks of the southeastern Eurasian Plate margin have accreted to the arc
rocks of the Philippine Mobile Belt (Sarewitz and Karig, 1986). These continental blocks are now
interpreted to be accreted to the Philippine archipelago in the areas of Palawan (Encarnacion et al.,
1995), West Mindoro (Holloway, 1982), Northwest Panay and Romblon Island (Hamilton, 1979; Taylor
and Hayes, 1983). Active subduction along the Manila and Negros Trenches are mainly induced by
movement of the Philippine Sea Plate.

Conclusions

The Philippine Mobile Belt (PMB) is a zone of intense deformation and active seismicity between
convergent zones bounding the Philippine Archipelago. First defined by Gervasio (1967) to distinguish
the seismic portion of the Philippine Archipelago from the southwestern region of the Philippines, the
PMB has constantly been cited in the literature on Philippine tectonics. Evolving from an era prior to the
development of Plate Tectonics, the PMB is now understood as a zone of decoupling from surrounding
major plates.

Interpretation of new geophysical data redefines the boundaries of the PMB relative to the Philippine
Sea, Eurasian and Indo-Australian plates. The eastern section of North Luzon, previously considered as
part of the PMB is considered as integrated with the Philippine Sea Plate. The boundary between the
PMB and the Philippine Sea Plate represents a crustal tear caused by the collision of the Benham Rise
with Luzon and is defined by the left-lateral Polilio-Philippine Fault. The crustal tear continues to the
Pugo segment of the Philippine Fault where stress imparted by motion of the Philippine Sea Plate in the
northern part of Luzon is accommodated by the active left-lateral Philippine Fault distributed along the
Laur-Dingalan, Pugo, Vigan-Aggao, Abra River and Digdig fault segments. Thus, the extent of the PMB as
originally defined by Gervasio (1967) is reduced. In this interpretation, the PMB now only includes the
western section of North Luzon, South Luzon, West Visayas, Northwest Mindanao, Bicol Region, East
Visayas, Zamboanga, Cotabato and the rest of Mindanao with Catanduanes Island representing the
eastern outer zone of the PMB.

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Journal of the Geological Society of the Philippines Vol. 64 No. 1 January-December 2009

Figure 9. Plate boundaries surrounding the Philippine Mobile Belt. In this revised tectonic map, the
Philippine Mobile Belt does not include the eastern portion of North Luzon.

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Journal of the Geological Society of the Philippines Vol. 64 No. 1 January-December 2009

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evolution of Southeast Asian sea and island: Part 2 A.G.U. Monograph, volume 27, 2356. American
Geophysical Union. 22

Key words: Philippine Mobile Belt, Benham Rise, Philippine Tectonics, Philippine Trench,
Philippine Fault, Manila Trench

Corresponding author.
Email address: mlagmay@nigs.upd.edu.ph (A.M.F. Lagmay1).

Geological Society of the Philippines 30