The role of crustal quartz in controlling Cordilleran deformation

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Large-scale deformation of continents remains poorly understood more than 40years after the plate tectonic revolution1. Rock flow strength and mass density variations both contribute to stress, so both are certain to be important, but these depend (somewhat nebulously) on rock type, temperature and whether or not unbound water is present2. Hence, it is unclear precisely how Earth material properties translate to continental deformation zones ranging from tens to thousands of kilometres in width, why deforming zones are sometimes interspersed with non-deforming blocks and why large earthquakes occasionally rupture in otherwise stable continental interiors. An important clue comes from observations that mountain belts and rift zones cyclically form at the same locations despite separation across vast gulfs of time3 (dubbed the Wilson tectonic cycle), accompanied by inversion of extensional basins4 and reactivation of faults and other structures formed in previous deformation events5. Here we show that the abundance of crustal quartz, the weakest mineral in continental rocks2, may strongly condition continental temperature and deformation. We use EarthScope seismic receiver functions6, gravity and surface heat flow measurements7 to estimate thickness and seismic velocity ratio, vP/vS, of continental crust in the western United States. The ratio vP/vS is relatively insensitive to temperature but very sensitive to quartz abundance8, 9. Our results demonstrate a surprising correlation of low crustal vP/vS with both higher lithospheric temperature and deformation of the Cordillera, the mountainous region of the western United States. The most plausible explanation for the relationship to temperature is a robust dynamical feedback, in which ductile strain first localizes in relatively weak, quartz-rich crust, and then initiates processes that promote advective warming, hydration and further weakening. The feedback mechanism proposed here would not only explain stationarity and spatial distributions of deformation, but also lend insight into the timing and distribution of thermal uplift10 and observations of deep-derived fluids in springs11.

At a glance


  1. Laboratory measurements of rock properties.
    Figure 1: Laboratory measurements of rock properties.

    a, Density ρ versus velocity ratio vP/vS for rocks8; bars are 1σ. Green line is a weighted regression of laboratory measurements; grey line depicts slope inverted from geophysical data (see Methods). Cyan curve shows feldspar temperature dependence for a 20–900°C range9; other minerals behave similarly. b, Density versus vP/vS for minerals8 shows quartz dominates the compositional relationship. c, Flow strength for crustal mineral constituents2, assuming 10−14s−1 strain rate, 1mm grain size, and a geotherm from the Colorado plateau. Brittle-field failure assumes a frictional coefficient μ = 0.2. Temperature, quartz abundance and water fugacity determine whether the lower crust flows.

  2. Likelihood filtering of crustal thickness and vP/vS.
    Figure 2: Likelihood filtering of crustal thickness and vP/vS.

    a, Raw EARS6 estimates of vP/vS. b, Binned (red circles) and modelled (blue line) root-variograms (root mean squared-difference as a function of distance) of crustal thickness measurements; light colours are raw EARS estimates; full colour saturation, our final model. c, Root-variograms of vP/vS. d, EARS6 HK stack for Transportable Array site O09A (H = 25km; K = 2.08). e, O09A stack after likelihood filtering (H = 29.75; K = 1.76). 1–2σ contours of optimal interpolation (grey) and gravity (white) models used to generate likelihood filters are also shown.

  3. Bulk crustal vP/vS of the western United States.
    Figure 3: Bulk crustal vP/vS of the western United States.

    Dashed white lines are physiographic province boundaries; dashed black outlines large granitic batholiths; solid grey line is the approximate 87Sr/86Sr = 0.706 isotopic isopleth.

  4. Related fields.
    Figure 4: Related fields.

    Dashed white lines are physiographic province boundaries. a, Surface heat flow7; black circles are borehole measurement sites. b, Crustal thickness. c, Effective elastic thickness from coherence analysis of gravity and topography24. Grey lines approximate the eastern limits of Sevier thin-skin contraction (solid) and Laramide foreland thick-skin contraction (dashed). d, Residual of the gravity model. Black dashed lines outline potassic volcanism associated with the Sierra Nevada drip26, deeper imaging of the Great Basin drip27, and the 500m contour of swell elevation modelled for Yellowstone25.


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Author information


  1. Department of Geology, Utah State University, Logan, Utah 84322-4505, USA

    • Anthony R. Lowry
  2. Department of Earth Sciences, Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, Surrey TW20 0EX, UK

    • Marta Pérez-Gussinyé


A.R.L. developed and implemented the joint receiver function/gravity/heatflow inversion for crustal thickness and vP/vS. M.P.-G. developed and implemented the inversion for effective elastic thickness. The manuscript was written by A.R.L with contributions from M.P.-G.

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