Formation of the Rocky Mountains, Western United States: A Continuum Computer Model

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Science  25 Mar 1988:
Vol. 239, Issue 4847, pp. 1501-1507
DOI: 10.1126/science.239.4847.1501


One hypothesis for the information of the Rocky Mountain structures in late Cretaceous through Eocene time is that plate of oceanic lithosphere was underthrust horizontally along the base of the North American lithosphere. The horizontal components of the motion of this plate are known from paleomagnetism, and the edge of the region of flat slab can estimated from reconstructed patterns of volcanism. New techniques of finite-element modeling allow prediction of the thermal and mechanical effects of horizontal subduction on the North American plate. A model that has a realistic temperature-dependent rheology and a simple plane-layered initial condition is used to compute the consequences of horizontal underthrusting in the time interval 75 million to 30 million years before present. Successful prediction of this model include (i) the location, amount, and direction of horizontal shortening that has been inferred from Laramide structures; (ii) massive transport of lower crust from southwest to northeast; (iii) the location and timing of the subsequent extension in metamorphic core complexes and the Rio Grande rift; and (iv) the total area eventually involved in Basin-and-Range style extension.

In a broad sense, this model has predicted the belt of Laramide structures, the transport of crust from the coastal region to the continental interior, the subsequent extension in metamorphic core complexes and the Rio Grande rift, and the geographic region of late Tertiary Basin-and-Range extension. Its principal defects are that (i) many events are predicted about 5 million to 10 million years too late and (ii) the wave of crustal thickening does not travel far enough to the east. Reasonable modifications to the oceanic plate kinematics and rheologies that were assumed may correct these defects.

The correspondence of model predictions to actual geology is already sufficiently close to show that the hypothesis that horizontal subduction caused the Laramide orogeny is probably correct. The Rocky Mountain thrust and reverse faults formed in an environment of east-west to northeast-southwest compressive stress that was caused by the viscous coupling between the oceanic plate and the base of the North American crust. Nonuniform crustal thickening by simple-shear transport also caused relative uplifts; therefore, this model is consistent with both of the range-forming mechanisms that have been inferred (1). A new proposal that arises from this simulation is that horizontal subduction also caused the subsequent extensional Basin-and-Range taphrogeny by stripping away the mantle lithosphere so that the crust was exposed to hot asthenosphere after the oceanic slab dropped away.