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The Gulf of California depression is a part of a larger province of listric normal fault extension which covers much of southern Arizona and southeastern California. East of the Gulf of California this style of upper crustal deformation ceased prior to 10 Ma, but beneath the western part of the Gulf and throughout the depressed area west of the Gulf this style of deformation continues to the present day.

The rhombochasmic exposure of sea floor along the axis of the Gulf is a special expression of the provincial extension, facilitated by the presence of strike-slip faulting. It is believed that detached slabs of upper crust tend to fill the rhombochasms as they form, causing sea-floor exposure to be temporary and local. When detached slabs from the marginal areas are no longer able to fill the chasm, permanent sea-floor exposure will begin.

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