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Magmatic events in the Baja peninsula-Gulf of California region are closely related to sequential tectonic regimes of: (1) late Tertiary subduction beneath the continental margin until ~16 to 12.5 Ma; and (2) continental to oceanic rifting that began about 13 Ma. Orogenic calcalkaline volcanic rocks formed subparallel belts of rhyolite ignimbrite of Oligocene age (~34 to 27 Ma) east of the Gulf in the Sierra Madre Occidental and andesite of Miocene age (~24 to 11 Ma) along the eastern Baja peninsula. Shutoff of the Miocene andesitic arc broadly corresponds to migration of the Pacific-Farallon (Guadalupe)-North America triple junction along the Baja peninsula. Orogenic andesitic volcanism ended at ~16 Ma in northern Baja, and at ~11 Ma in southern Baja, within ~1 to 2 Ma of cessation of subduction. Waning orogenic magmatism persisted along the southern Baja peninsula during the initial stages of rifting.

Paleogeographic implications of the distribution of circum-Gulf volcanic rocks and their inferred easterly source areas suggest that, from about 13 to 8 Ma, the rift consisted of a narrow seaway along the eastern side of the present Gulf. By about 6 Ma, the Gulf had broadened westward to approximately its present width. The period from 13 to 10 Ma was a time of tectonic transition and magmatic diversity. During this interval, medium-K calcalkaline, high-K calcalkaline, alkalic, and tholeiitic magmas erupted from the central to southern part of the Baja peninsula-Gulf region, and from about 14 to 8 Ma, rhyolite ignimbrite erupted in the northern Gulf region. Since 10 Ma, volcanism on the western Baja peninsula has been dominated by alkalic magmas, the Gulf margins by calcalkaline magmas, and the Gulf by tholeiitic magmas. Postsubduction calcalkaline andesite to rhyolite erupted sporadically and locally along the northern Gulf margins from ~9 Ma through Holocene time.

Alkalic magmas associated with rifting in the Gulf of California are unlike alkalic magmas from intraplate settings. They comprise nepheline- to quartz-normative, basaltic to andesitic rocks characterized by diverse trace element ratios. They are broadly similar to intraplate alkalic rocks in having high K, P, Ba, Sr and the light REE (rare earth elements), but have some trace element characteristics typical of orogenic magmas (low Nb and Ta relative to K, Ba, Sr, and La) that distinguish these alkalic rocks from intraplate or cratonic rift alkalic rocks. Rb abundances (mostly <25 ppm, as low as 5 ppm) are unusually low in these alkalic rocks, both in contrast to the high K (~1.7-4.1 wt% K2O), Ba (~800-2200 ppm), and Sr (~1000-3700 ppm), and in comparison to Rb abundances in mafic lavas in general; many samples have Rb at levels typically found in low-K tholeiites. The high K/Rb ratios, mostly ~1000 to 5000, are among the highest reported for any lavas. Samples ranging in SiO2 from 48 to 61% have Mg’ ≥ 65, indicating that a broad range of compositions may represent primary melts. The generally high Mg’, and the low Rb, Th, Nb, and Ta in some lavas, suggest that depleted refractory mantle equivalent to a mid-ocean ridge basalt (MORB) source contributed to these melts. The distinctive trace element enrichments are attributed to the stabilization in the source of amphibole and apatite from metasomatic fluids related to prior subduction beneath the peninsula. In discrimination diagrams, these alkalic rocks typically cluster outside previously defined fields for various magma types. The common tectonic setting among these and geochemically similar alkalic suites is the occurrence in a continental margin that is undergoing extension, located along a recently or currently active convergent plate boundary.

Tholeiitic basalts have erupted since the earliest stages of continental rifting through development of oceanic spreading centers. Gulf of California tholeiites exhibit an evolution distinguished particularly by differences in rare-earth-element (REE) abundances. Early-rift magmas are similar in trace element geochemistry to some intraplate tholeiites from ocean islands and continental flood basalts, and have convex-upward REE patterns. The most recent tholeiites from the East Pacific Rise in the mouth of the Gulf are equivalent to N-MORB (normal mid-ocean ridge basalt) from other mid-ocean rifts, and are depleted in the light-REE. The transition in tholeiite geochemistry from intraplate tholeiite to MORB is attributed to progressive fusion of more refractory mantle components. Incipient-rift tholeiites are derived from selective fusion of clinopyroxenite veins, and with continued melting, N-MORB are formed by fusion of peridotite. This tholeiite sequence reflects the evolution of mantle source regions in rifts that sustain an ensialic to oceanic transition.

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