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Professional Paper 1783

Cenozoic Tectonic Reorganizations of the Death Valley Region, Southeast California and Southwest Nevada

By Christopher J. Fridrich and Ren A. Thompson

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (10.2 MB)Abstract

The Death Valley region, of southeast California and southwest Nevada, is distinct relative to adjacent regions in its structural style and resulting topography, as well as in the timing of basin-range extension. Cenozoic basin-fill strata, ranging in age from greater than or equal to 40 to approximately 2 million years are common within mountain-range uplifts in this region. The tectonic fragmentation and local uplift of these abandoned basin-fills indicate a multistage history of basin-range tectonism. Additionally, the oldest of these strata record an earlier, pre-basin-range interval of weak extension that formed broad shallow basins that trapped sediments, without forming basin-range topography.

The Cenozoic basin-fill strata record distinct stratigraphic breaks that regionally cluster into tight age ranges, constrained by well-dated interbedded volcanic units. Many of these stratigraphic breaks are long recognized formation boundaries. Most are angular unconformities that coincide with abrupt changes in depositional environment. Deposits that bound these unconformities indicate they are weakly diachronous; they span about 1 to 2 million years and generally decrease in age to the west within individual basins and regionally, across basin boundaries.

Across these unconformities, major changes are found in the distribution and provenance of basin-fill strata, and in patterns of internal facies. These features indicate rapid, regionally coordinated changes in strain patterns defined by major active basin-bounding faults, coincident with step-wise migrations of the belt of active basin-range tectonism. The regionally correlative unconformities thus record short intervals of radical tectonic change, here termed “tectonic reorganizations.” The intervening, longer (about 3- to 5-million-year) interval of gradual, monotonic evolution in the locus and style of tectonism are called “tectonic stages.”

The belt of active tectonism in the Death Valley region has abruptly stepped westward during three successive tectonic reorganizations that intervened between four stages of basin-range tectonism, the youngest of which is ongoing. These three tectonic reorganizations also intervened between four stages of volcanic activity, each of which has been distinct in the compositions of magmas erupted, in eruption rates, and in the locus of volcanic activity—which has stepped progressively westward, in close coordination with the step-wise migrations in the locus of basin-range extension.

The timing of the Cenozoic tectonic reorganizations in the Death Valley region correlates closely with the documented timing of episodic reorganizations of the boundary between the Pacific and North American plates, to the west and southwest. This supports models that explain the widely distributed transtensional tectonism in southwestern North America since approximately 40 million years ago as resulting from traction imposed by the adjacent, divergent Pacific plate.

First posted November 14, 2011

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Suggested citation:

Fridrich, C.J., and Thompson, R.A., 2011, Cenozoic tectonic reorganizations of the Death Valley region, southeast California and southwest Nevada: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1783, 36 p. and 1 plate.




Death Valley Region and Its Boundaries

Strike-Slip Offsets within the Death Valley Region

Cenozoic Stratigraphy and Structure



References Cited

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