Abstract

Gravitational body forces (i.e., buoyancy forces) have come to be seen as critical to the evolution of orogens. Nevertheless, constraining the role of body forces in specific geologic scenarios is made difficult by the substantial number of poorly constrained physical parameters needed to fully relate forces to deformation. By separating the calculation of buoyancy forces from the calculation of the resulting deformation, models based on relatively simple descriptions of the lithosphere can yield geologically useful constraints. Among these are the importance of paleoelevation in driving syn- and postcontractional extension and in localizing contractional strain. Although such phenomena have been considered in more complex models of continental deformation, the simpler analysis presented here clearly establishes first-order limits on lithospheric structures and paleoelevations consistent with buoyancy-driven deformation. In the early Cenozoic Great Basin of the western United States, we show that the low elevations inferred in much of the geologic literature are inconsistent with a body-force origin for observed extensional tectonism. East of the Colorado Plateau, localization of Laramide deformation coincides with pre-Laramide subsidence of the Western Interior seaway. This subsidence prestressed the lithosphere, making the Southern Rocky Mountains the weak link in responding to regional compressional stress.

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