Abstract

Extension during plate convergence and mountain building is widely recognized, yet the causes of synconvergent extension remain controversial. Here we propose that delamination of lithospheric mantle, aided by decoupling of the crust from the mantle via a reduction in the viscosity of the lower crust through heating, incursion of fluids, and partial melting, explains many enigmatic yet prevalent aspects of the metamorphic, magmatic, and kinematic history of the Sevier-Laramide orogen of the western United States during the Late Cretaceous. Extension, heating, anatexis, magmatism, and perhaps rock uplift were widespread during a restricted time interval in the Late Cretaceous (75–67 Ma) along the axis of maximum crustal thickening within the Mojave sector of the Sevier orogen, and to a lesser extent within the interior of the Idaho-Utah-Wyoming sector to the north; similar processes may have been active in the Peninsular Range, Sierran, western Mojave, and Salinian segments of the Mesozoic Cordilleran arc. These processes are viewed as predictable consequences of the thermal, rheological, and dynamic state of the overlying crust following delamination of mantle lithosphere beneath isostatically compensated mountain belts. The proposed delamination would have occurred immediately prior to eastward propagation of low-angle subduction of the Farallon plate during the inception of the Laramide orogeny. Following delamination, extension and anatexis of the North American crust were aided locally by egress of slab-derived fluids from the low-angle Farallon slab. We suggest that lithospheric delamination may have aided in the shallowing of the slab to achieve low-angle subduction geometry. Delamination has been proposed to be common in areas of thickened continental lithosphere in the terminal phase or late in orogenesis. The Late Cretaceous delamination event proposed here for the Sevier-Laramide orogen occurred during protracted plate convergence and was synchronous with, and followed by, continued shortening in the external part of the orogen.

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