Continuing Colorado plateau uplift by delamination-style convective lithospheric downwelling


The Colorado plateau is a large, tectonically intact, physiographic province in the southwestern North American Cordillera that stands at 1,800–2,000 m elevation and has long been thought to be in isostatic equilibrium1. The origin of these high elevations is unclear because unlike the surrounding provinces, which have undergone significant Cretaceous–Palaeogene compressional deformation followed by Neogene extensional deformation, the Colorado plateau is largely internally undeformed. Here we combine new seismic tomography2 and receiver function images to resolve a vertical high-seismic-velocity anomaly beneath the west-central plateau that extends more than 200 km in depth. The upper surface of this anomaly is seismically defined by a dipping interface extending from the lower crust to depths of 70–90 km. The base of the continental crust above the anomaly has a similar shape, with an elevated Moho. We interpret these seismic structures as a continuing regional, delamination-style foundering of lower crust and continental lithosphere. This implies that Pliocene (2.6–5.3 Myr ago) uplift of the plateau and the magmatism on its margins are intimately tied to continuing deep lithospheric processes. Petrologic and geochemical observations indicate that late Cretaceous–Palaeogene (90–40 Myr ago) low-angle subduction hydrated and probably weakened much of the Proterozoic tectospheric mantle3,4,5 beneath the Colorado plateau. We suggest that mid-Cenozoic (35–25 Myr ago) to Recent magmatic infiltration subsequently imparted negative compositional buoyancy to the base and sides of the Colorado plateau upper mantle, triggering downwelling. The patterns of magmatic activity suggest that previous such events have progressively removed the Colorado plateau lithosphere inward from its margins6, and have driven uplift. Using Grand Canyon incision rates7,8 and Pliocene basaltic volcanism patterns, we suggest that this particular event has been active over the past 6 Myr.

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Figure 1: Elevation map of the Colorado plateau.
Figure 2: Seismic velocity measurements at 80 km depth, and LAB depth, as measured with different seismic probes.
Figure 3: Receiver function and seismic velocity cross-sections through the downwelling region.
Figure 4: The inferred progression of events associated with lithospheric foundering and the geometry of the drip today.


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The USArray data are from the IRIS DMS. A.L., K.L., M.S.M., E.D.H. and B.S. were supported by NSF EarthScope grants EAR-0844741, EAR-0844760 and EAR-0911006. Part of this research was initiated at the CIDER 2008 workshop (A.L., M.S.M.), and part was initiated at the GFZ-Potsdam (A.L.). A.L. acknowledges an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Research Prize.

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A.L. wrote the receiver function analysis codes and processed the PdS receiver functions. B.S. and E.D.H. wrote the tomography codes and processed the body wave data. M.S.M. and A.L. analysed the SdP receiver functions. K.L. analysed the Rayleigh wave data. K.E.K. and R.S.C. provided uplift and geochemical information. C.-T.A.L. provided geochemical information. All the authors participated in the interpretation.

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Correspondence to A. Levander.

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Levander, A., Schmandt, B., Miller, M. et al. Continuing Colorado plateau uplift by delamination-style convective lithospheric downwelling. Nature 472, 461–465 (2011).

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