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The Lovejoy basalt represents the largest eruptive unit identified in California, and its age, volume, and chemistry indicate a genetic affinity with the Columbia River Basalt Group and its associated mantle-plume activity. Recent field mapping, geochemical analyses, and radiometric dating suggest that the Lovejoy basalt erupted during the mid-Miocene from a fissure at Thompson Peak, south of Susanville, California. The Lovejoy flowed through a paleovalley across the northern end of the Sierra Nevada to the Sacramento Valley, a distance of 240 km. Approximately 150 km3 of basalt were erupted over a span of only a few centuries. Our age dates for the Lovejoy basalt cluster are near 15.4 Ma and suggest that it is coeval with the 16.1–15.0 Ma Imnaha and Grande Ronde flows of the Columbia River Basalt Group. Our new mapping and age dating support the interpretation that the Lovejoy basalt erupted in a forearc position relative to the ancestral Cascades arc, in contrast with the Columbia River Basalt Group, which erupted in a backarc position. The arc front shifted trenchward into the Sierran block after 15.4 Ma. However, the Lovejoy basalt appears to be unrelated to volcanism of the predominantly calc-alkaline Cascade arc; instead, the Lovejoy is broadly tholeiitic, with trace-element characteristics similar to the Columbia River Basalt Group.

Association of the Lovejoy basalt with mid-Miocene flood basalt volcanism has considerable implications for North American plume dynamics and strengthens the thermal “point source” explanation, as provided by the mantle-plume hypothesis. Alternatives to the plume hypothesis usually call upon lithosphere-scale cracks to control magmatic migrations in the Yellowstone–Columbia River basalt region. However, it is difficult to imagine a lithosphere-scale flaw that crosses Precambrian basement and accreted terranes to reach the Sierra microplate, where the Lovejoy is located. Therefore, we propose that the Lovejoy represents a rapid migration of plume-head material, at ~20 cm/yr to the southwest, a direction not previously recognized.

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