Abstract

The magnitude of late Cenozoic rock uplift of the Sierra Nevada (California, USA) remains unresolved despite more than a century of investigation, with estimates ranging from essentially zero to ∼3 km of uplift at the range crest. Two sets of two-dimensional end-member mechanical models bracket how normal faulting along the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada contributed to uplift of the range over a time span of millions of years. The short-term models are based on dislocations in an elastic half-space. The long-term models involve thin elastic beams resting on an inviscid fluid. Both sets of models predict that if the regional topography were entirely a response to faulting along the eastern escarpment, then the bedrock floors immediately east of the range should consistently lie thousands of meters below sea level, instead of thousands of meters above sea level as they generally do. Both sets of analyses indicate that although faulting would lift the range crest, it would drop the rock east of the range-front faults at least as much, and perhaps much more; model results suggest that ∼66%–85% of the current escarpment relief stems from subsidence of the grabens east of the Sierra Nevada, with only ∼15%–34% resulting from crestal uplift. Our results strongly indicate that range-front faulting in the last 3–10 m.y. uplifted rock at the Sierra Nevada crest by hundreds of meters to as much as 1 km, and that this uplift was superposed on high topography that predated the origin of the eastern escarpment. These conclusions are compatible with diverse geologic observations and measurements.

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