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Understanding of the crust has improved dramatically following the application of seismic reflection and refraction techniques to studies of the deep crust. This is particularly true in areas where the last tectonic event was extensional, such as the Basin and Range province of the western United States and much of western Europe. In these regions, a characteristic reflective pattern has emerged, whereby the lower crust is highly reflective and the upper crust and upper mantle are either poorly reflective or strikingly nonreflective. In the metamorphic-core-complex belt in the western United States, where extension can be as much as an order of magnitude greater than in the more classic continental rift zones, the lower crustal reflectivity thickens and rises, yielding a picture of a crust that is reflective throughout. Synthetic seismic studies have documented that the reflectivity in these regions can be modeled by numerous laminae tens of meters thick and hundreds of meters across, characterized by inter-layered high and low velocities. Two geologic factors are interpreted as contributing to this layered character: ductile strain, responding to stress in the thermally weakened middle and lower crust, and intrusive layering, corresponding to injection of subhorizontal sheets of mantle-derived magmas. These two processes yield a variety of geologic structures, including transposed compositional layering, mylonitic ductile shear zones, and intrusive mafic sheets, all of which occur at the proper scales to cause the prominent reflectivity observed. If metamorphic core complexes are representative of extended continental crust world-wide, then these results suggest that magmatism and ductile flow have also contributed to the evolution of the middle and lower crust in many other areas around the world.

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