Thermo-Kinematic Modeling of Detachment-Dominated Extension, Northeastern Death Valley Area, USA: Implications for Mid-Crustal Thermal-Rheological Evolution

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The deep structure of continental detachment faults remains debated. Thermo-mechanical models generate detachments that either transect the lithosphere or become distributed shear zones in the mid-lower crust, depending on prescribed thermo-rheological conditions. However, these geometries and prescribed conditions remain little constrained by geology-based reconstructions. We present stepwise, balanced reconstructions of a 160 km-long cross-section through two detachment faults in the southwest USA. Reconstructions form the basis of iteratively improved 2D forward thermo-kinematic numerical simulations of detachment fault slip, footwall exhumation, heat advection, and footwall zircon (U-Th)/He cooling ages. Thermo-kinematic model solutions are calibrated iteratively against surface heat flow, pre- and post-extensional geotherms, inferred Moho temperatures, and thermochronometric data from one detachment footwall. Best-fit models predict the thermal and geometric evolution of the crust and detachments, respectively, during extension. The detachment initially rooted into a mid-crustal shear zone (~7.5–12 km depth) and was probably delocalized in the deep middle crust (>12–15 km). The maximum principal stress was likely non-vertical in the middle crust at detachment initiation, possibly due to mantle upwelling. Our reconstructions suggest that the upper crust and lower crust-mantle lithosphere were decoupled by a weak, mid-crustal layer during early detachment faulting. The weak layer was thinned, cooled, partially embrittled, and therefore strengthened by continued detachment slip. This increased lithospheric mechanical coupling and caused the locus of upper-crustal extension to shift. Thinning of a weak mid-crustal layer, as is thought to precede coupled hyperextension and mantle exhumation during rifting, was mostly complete in our study area by ~7–6 Ma.


Cordilleran thrust belt; Detachment; Metamorphic core complex; Mid-crustal flow; Thermo-kinematic model


Geophysics and Seismology | Tectonics and Structure



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