Origin of Columbia River flood basalt controlled by propagating rupture of the Farallon slab

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The origin of the Steens–Columbia River (SCR) flood basalts, which is presumed to be the onset of Yellowstone volcanism, has remained controversial, with the proposed conceptual models involving either a mantle plume1,2,3,4,5 or back-arc processes6,7,8. Recent tomographic inversions based on the USArray data reveal unprecedented detail of upper-mantle structures of the western USA9 and tightly constrain geodynamic models simulating Farallon subduction, which has been proposed to influence the Yellowstone volcanism5,6. Here we show that the best-fitting geodynamic model10 depicts an episode of slab tearing about 17 million years ago under eastern Oregon, where an associated sub-slab asthenospheric upwelling thermally erodes the Farallon slab, leading to formation of a slab gap at shallow depth. Driven by a gradient of dynamic pressure, the tear ruptured quickly north and south and within about two million years covering a distance of around 900 kilometres along all of eastern Oregon and northern Nevada. This tear would be consistent with the occurrence of major volcanic dikes during the SCR–Northern Nevada Rift flood basalt event both in space and time. The model predicts a petrogenetic sequence for the flood basalt with sources of melt starting from the base of the slab, at first remelting oceanic lithosphere and then evolving upwards, ending with remelting of oceanic crust. Such a progression helps to reconcile the existing controversies on the interpretation of SCR geochemistry and the involvement of the putative Yellowstone plume. Our study suggests a new mechanism for the formation of large igneous provinces.

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Figure 1: Development of the Farallon slab rupture beneath the western USA during the mid-Miocene epoch.
Figure 2: Mantle flow associated with the slab tearing at latitude 44 °N from 18 to 14 Myr ago.
Figure 3: Three-dimensional view of the tearing slab.


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We thank R. Carlson and D. Blackman for discussions. Computational resources were provided by XSEDE project EAR100021. L.L. was funded by the John Miles Fellowship and the Cecil and Ida Green Foundation. D.R.S. was supported in part by the G. Unger Vetlesen Foundation.

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L.L. designed and performed the numerical models. Both authors contributed equally to idea development and result interpretation.

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Liu, L., Stegman, D. Origin of Columbia River flood basalt controlled by propagating rupture of the Farallon slab. Nature 482, 386–389 (2012) doi:10.1038/nature10749

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