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U.S. Geological Survey
Bulletin 1995-AA

Quaternary Tectonic Setting of South-Central Coastal California

By William R. Lettis, Kathryn L. Hanson, Jeffrey R. Unruh, Marcia McLaren, and William U. Savage

Chapter AA of

Evolution of Sedimentary Basins/Offshore Oil and Gas Investigations—Santa Maria Province

Edited by Margaret A. Keller

Recent geodetic, geologic, and seismologic studies show that the south-central coast of California is a region of active Quaternary deformation. Northeast-directed crustal shortening is occurring in a triangular-shaped region between the Hosgri-San Simeon fault system on the west, the Southern Coast Ranges on the northeast, and the western Transverse Ranges on the south. We informally call this region the Los Osos domain. In this study, we conducted detailed geological, seismological, and geophysical investigations to characterize the nature and rates of deformation in the domain. Locations of active and potentially active faults and folds are compiled at a scale of 1:250,000 for the entire domain based primarily on onshore geologic data and offshore geophysical data. Crustal shortening in the domain is accommodated by a series of prominent northwest-trending reverse faults and localized folding. The reverse faults separate distinct structural blocks that have little or no internal deformation. Hangingwall blocks are being uplifted at rates of up to 0.2 mm/yr. Footwall blocks are either static or slowly subsiding at rates of 0.1 mm/yr or less, except for localized areas of concentrated subsidence directly adjacent to some faults. The cumulative rate of crustal shortening is about 1 to 2 mm/yr across the northern part of the domain based on observed geologic deformation. Cumulative shortening across the central and southern parts of the domain is poorly constrained by geologic data and may approach 2 to 3 mm/yr.

Historical and instrumental seismicity generally are spatially associated with the uplifted blocks and bordering reverse faults to depths of about 10 km. Together with near-surface geological data and deeper crustal geophysical imaging that show high-angle faulting, the seismicity data indicate that the reverse faults probably extend to the base of the seismogenic crust. The base of the seismogenic crust may correspond with a mid-crustal detachment or decollement surface into which the reverse faults root. We speculate that the detachment may coincide, in part, with the top of a northeast-dipping slab of oceanic crust that extends beneath the western margin of the continent or with the brittle-ductile transition above the subducted slab.

The Los Osos domain of north-northeast/south-southwest crustal shortening is structurally detached from the offshore Santa Maria Basin by the high-angle dextral San Simeon and Hosgri Fault Zones. Both the pattern and regional extent of deformation in the Los Osos domain contrast sharply with that of the offshore Santa Maria Basin. The basin is undergoing minor east-northeast/west-southwest crustal shortening at rates of less than 0.1 mm/yr and is moving northwestward at a rate of about 1 to 3 mm/yr relative to the Los Osos domain along the San Simeon and Hosgri Fault Zones. Geodetic data and the kinematics of north-northeast-directed crustal shortening of the Los Osos domain east of the Hosgri Fault Zone show that the rate and cumulative amount of right-slip along the Hosgri Fault Zone progressively decrease southward.

Quaternary deformation within the Los Osos domain is related to distributed dextral simple shear associated with Pacific-North American plate motion. Paleomagnetic data show that clockwise rotation of the western Transverse Ranges has occurred along the southern boundary of the domain during the past 6 m.y. During this time, the Salinian crustal block, which forms the eastern boundary of the Los Osos domain, has remained relatively stable. Internal shortening of the Los Osos domain has accommodated the relative motions of these bordering crustal blocks, particularly the rotation of the western Transverse Ranges.

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Date created: November 9, 2004
Last modified: July 22, 2011 (mfd)