Structural and stratigraphic relations in the Great Basin indicate widespread pre-middle Miocene crustal extension that appears to define two north-trending belts. Most extension in these belts was Oligocene age, but locally it began earlier or lasted into early Miocene time. The eastern belt straddles the Nevada-Utah border and includes the Snake Range, Nevada, area, with its southern end near 37.5°N and its western edge at the Seaman-Butte Mountains breakaway. The southern boundary of the eastern belt is occupied by the 26-15 Ma Caliente caldera complex and approximately coincides with the present east-west-trending margin of the Great Basin north of Saint George, Utah. Crust north of this boundary extended approximately east-west before volcanism began at 30-32 Ma, but to the south, extension began after about 15 Ma. This boundary may have been a rooted zone of left-slip faults that allowed the footwall of the Stampede detachment to move west relative to unextended terrain to the south. The eastern margin of the eastern belt is probably located near the present eastern edge of the Great Basin, but its northern end is poorly defined. The western belt runs from the Funeral and Grapevine Mountains, California, to the Ruby Mountains, Nevada, and north-northeast to the Albion Range, Idaho. Tens of kilometers of crustal extension occurred at least locally in both belts, but magnitude of extension is poorly known for large areas of each.
Tertiary volcanism in the Great Basin began in the north in Eocene time with predominantly effusive volcanism and swept southward, ending with voluminous Oligocene-Miocene ignimbrite eruptions from calderas in an irregular, discontinuous belt between Marysvale, Utah, and Reno, Nevada. A result of the south-ward migration of volcanism is that the onset of extension in both belts was syn- or post-volcanic in the north but was pre-volcanic in the south. Late Paleogene extension and crustal magmatism coincided in both time and space only locally, where south-migrating magmatism overlapped active north-south-trending extensional belts.
Most calderas in the southern Great Basin formed in previously extended belts or on their margins. Southward migration of ignimbrite sources was apparently blocked by unextended crust to the south. In contrast, volcanism north of the ignimbrite province was dominated by nonexplosive effusion of lava prior to, or during, crustal extension. This is consistent with observations in the southern Basin and Range, where volcanism and crustal extension were generally synchronous, and volcanism was dominantly effusive. Thus, caldera formation may be controlled by the distribution of upper-crustal extension, although the physical mechanism for this control remains speculative.
The space-time patterns of late Paleogene extension in the Great Basin are consistent with extension being triggered by thermal weakening of subducted oceanic lithosphere rather than by effects transmitted from the plate margin, but being driven by gravitational collapse of thick crust. Space-time patterns of Tertiary volcanism in the Basin and Range also appear to conform to patterns of thermal weakening or destruction of the subducted slab. Both active and passive rifting mechanisms are inapplicable on the scale of the extensional belts, because both predict close spatial and temporal association of extension and magmatism, which is not generally observed.