Victoria continental microplate dynamics controlled by the lithospheric strength distribution of the East African Rift

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The Victoria microplate between the Eastern and Western Branches of the East African Rift System is one of the largest continental microplates on Earth. In striking contrast to its neighboring plates, Victoria rotates counterclockwise with respect to Nubia. The underlying cause of this distinctive rotation has remained elusive so far. Using 3D numerical models, we investigate the role of pre-existing lithospheric heterogeneities in continental microplate rotation. We find that Victoria's rotation is primarily controlled by the distribution of rheologically stronger zones that transmit the drag of the major plates to the microplate and of the mechanically weaker mobile belts surrounding Victoria that facilitate rotation. Our models reproduce Victoria's GPS-derived counterclockwise rotation as well as key complexities of the regional tectonic stress field. These results reconcile competing ideas on the opening of the rift system by highlighting differences in orientation of the far-field divergence, local extension, and the minimum horizontal stress. One of the largest continental microplates on Earth is situated in the center of the East African Rift System, and oddly, the Victoria microplate rotates counterclockwise with respect to the neighboring African tectonic plate. Here, the authors' modelling results suggest that Victoria microplate rotation is caused by edge-driven lithospheric processes related to the specific geometry of rheologically weak and strong regions.