Basin and Range: From mountains to basin

The "marching caterpillars" of the Basin and Range province, showing the San Andreas Fault in  (credit: University of Maryland, USA)
The “marching caterpillars” of the Basin and Range province, showing the San Andreas Fault in green (credit: University of Maryland, USA)

The Basin and Range province of the western US is one of the world’s largest products of continental extension. Being semi-arid, sedimentation has been unable to keep pace with crustal thinning thereby giving form to its name: linear mountain ridges separated by sediment-filled basins. Despite the extreme extension the Basin and Range has an average elevation of about 1400 m, although it is well below that of the Sierra Nevada range (2000+ m) that flanks it to the west. Throughout the Mesozoic, subduction towards the east beneath the North American plate produced voluminous magmas and fold-thrust belts adding to the continental crust in a manner similar to that still occurring in the South American Andes. Extension began in earnest during the Eocene (~45 Ma) and continues today. Much of the theory regarding continental extension – listric normal faults and detachments, fault-tilt blocks, core complexes etc. – stems from studies in this huge terrain. As regards the evolution of the Basin and Range, it has been widely thought that by the Late Oligocene (~25 Ma) the thickened Cordilleran crust had been reduced to a plateau no higher than the present Sierra Nevada, which subsequent extension reduced to the present Basin and Range.

The Eocene to Miocene extensional history was punctuated by huge episodes of explosive volcanism from which hot ash flowed laterally for hundreds of kilometres, relics of which are still widespread. Such ignimbrites are often very porous and were aquifers while still exposed, until buried by sediment and subsequent nuée ardent flows. Groundwater at the time of first exposure altered the volcanic glass shards from which ignimbrites are formed, so that the oxygen and hydrogen making up what was originally rainwater is now locked in the altered ash flows. The hydrogen isotopic composition of such meteoric water is known to vary with the altitude of the clouds shedding it. Water containing the heavier hydrogen isotope deuterium (D) is preferentially precipitated at low altitudes, so that high altitude rainfall is significantly depleted in it. Because of this the alteration can give clues to the former topographic elevation of the ignimbrites when they first rushed across the land surface. Applying this method to the repeated ignimbrite events in what is now the Basin and Range has given a good idea of the actual evolution of the land surface in the western US during the Palaeogene (Cassel, E.J. et al. 2014. Profile of a paleo-orogen: high topography across the present-day Basin and Range from 40-23 Ma. Geology, v. 42, p. 1007-1010).

The results present a major surprise. In the Eocene, elevation across the area was, as anticipated, a little more than the present Sierra Nevada (2000-2500 m). This fell back to roughly 2000 m, again as theory would suggest. But by the Late Oligocene (23-27 Ma) elevation expected to have declined further over the Basin and Range actually leapt to between 2500-3500 m, up to 2.1 km higher than it is today: the opposite of prediction. Effectively, despite evidence for Palaeogene extension the crust was buoyed-up probably by an upwelling of the asthenosphere and increased heat flow. The unexpected uplift occurred towards the end of subduction of oceanic lithosphere beneath western North America, the dynamics of which prevented the westward collapse of an earlier orogen. When subduction ended and the plate-margin tectonics became strike slip, as witnessed by the San Andreas Fault, the continental crust slid apart in the manner of books on a library shelf if a bookend is removed.

Johnson, S.K. 2015. From rain to ranges. Scientific American, v. 312 (January 2015), p. 12-13.

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