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U.S. Geological Survey Crustal Studies Technical Letter Number 8

In cooperation with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

Structure of the Crust and Upper Mantle in the Western United States

By L.C. Pakiser


Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (35.4 MB)Abstract

Seismic waves generated by underground nuclear and chemical explosions have been recorded in a network of nearly 2,000 stations in the western conterminous United States as a part of the VELA UNIFORM program. The network extends from eastern Colorado to the California coastline and from central Idaho to the border of the United States and Mexico.

The speed of compressional waves in the upper-mantle rocks ranges from 7.7 km/sec in the southern part of the Basin and Range province to 8.2 km/sec in the Great Plains province. In general, the speed of compressional waves in the upper-mantle rocks tends to be nearly the same over large areas within individual geologic provinces.

Measured crustal thickness ranges from less than 20 km in the Central Valley of California to 50 km in the Great Plains province. Changes in crustal thickness across provincial boundaries are not controlled by regional altitude above sea level un1ess the properties of the upper mantle are the same across those boundaries. The crust tends to be thick in regions where the speed of compressional waves in the upper-mantle rocks (and presumably the density) is high, and tends to be relatively thin where the speed of compressional waves in the upper-mantle rocks (and density) is lower. With in the Basin and Range province, crustal thickness seems to vary directly with regional altitude above sea level. Evidence that a layer of intermediate compressional-wave speed exists in the lower part of the crust has been accumulated from seismic waves that have traveled least-time paths, as well as secondary arrivals (particularly reflections).

On a scale that includes many geologic provinces, isostatic compensation is related largely to variations in the density of the upper- mantle rocks. Within geologic provinces or adjacent provinces, isostatic compensation may be related to variations in the thickness of crustal layers. Regions of thick crust and dense upper mantle have been relatively stable in Cenozoic time. Regions of thinner crust and low-density upper mantle have had a Cenozoic history of intense diastrophism and silicic volcanism.

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Contact Information, Earthquake Science Center, Menlo Park Science Center
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345 Middlefield Road, MS 977
Menlo Park, California 94025

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Suggested citation:

Pakiser, L.C., 1963, Structure of the crust and upper mantle in the western United States: U.S. Geological Survey Crustal Studies Technical Letter Number 8, 33 p. (Available at






Speed of Pn

Density of the Upper Mantle

Variations in Crustal Thickness

Intermediate Crustal Layers

Implications Concerning Isostatic Compensation

Implications Concerning Gravity Studies

Geologic Implications



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