In the southern Gulf of California, the generation of new oceanic crust has resulted in linear magnetic anomalies and seafloor bathymetry that are characteristic of active seafloor-spreading systems. In the northern Gulf of California and the onshore (southeastern California, USA) Salton Trough region, a thick sedimentary package overlies the crystalline crust, masking its nature, and linear magnetic anomalies are absent. We use potential-field data and a geotherm analysis to constrain the composition of the crust (oceanic or continental) and develop a conceptual model for rifting. Gravity anomalies in the northern Gulf of California and Salton Trough are best fit with crustal densities that correspond to continental crust, and the fit is not as good if densities representative of mafic rocks, i.e., oceanic crust or mafic underplating, are assumed. Because extensive mafic underplated bodies would produce gravity anomalies that are not in agreement with observed gravity data, we propose, following earlier work, that the anomalies might be due to serpentinized peridotite bodies such as found at magma-poor rifted margins. The density and seismic velocities of such serpentinized peridotite bodies are in agreement with observed gravity and seismic velocities. Our conceptual model for the Salton Trough and northern Gulf of California shows that net crustal thinning here is limited because new crust is formed rapidly from sediment deposition. As a result, continental breakup may be delayed.

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