Basin and Range volcanism as a passive response to extensional tectonics

A long-standing issue in Cordilleran geology involves the nature of Basin and Range (western USA) volcanism, and whether such magmatism provides a trigger for extensional deformation, or if volcanic activity is a passive response to extension. We use space-time-composition patterns across the central and southern Basin and Range, and where appropriate, reconstructed latitudes and longitudes of volcanic rocks, to show that volcanism is fundamentally a passive process. Our analysis suggests that Basin and Range volcanism is initiated by the transition from a subduction to a transform boundary (now manifest as the San Andreas fault), which causes a slab window to open, as the subducting Farallon plate falls away. Accordingly, volcanic activity follows the northward-migrating Mendocino Triple Junction (MTJ). In the wake of the MTJ, continental mantle lithosphere is heated over a time scale of 10–12 Ma; it then rapidly degrades (or is removed) 17–20 Ma after MTJ arrival at any given latitude, and is replaced by asthenosphere. In the central Basin and Range, MTJ migration triggers the well-documented structural migration of the Sierra Nevada away from the Colorado Plateau. Not only is volcanism triggered by the tectonic transition, but in the central Basin and Range volcanism also migrates west, following the initiation of upper crustal extensional faulting; the lag between the onset of extension and initiation of volcanism is a remarkably consistent 2 Ma. Within this framework, the initial stage of eastward-concentrated volcanism is dominated by felsic magmatism, which then gradually degrades to a more mafic composition. This pattern, and temporal relations indicate that once lithospheric extension begins, between 2 and 5 Ma are needed to develop conduits through which nonviscous magmas can transit the crust, and that especially high amounts of extensional strain favor the eruption of K2O-rich, low-degree partial melts. Our observations indicate that it is unlikely that mantle plume processes initiated Basin and Range volcanism within the study area, and that decreases in SiO2 and increases in incompatible element abundances to the east within the Cordillera are best explained by continental mantle lithosphere that thickens to the east, which reduces average melt fractions.