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The role of oceanic plateau subduction in the Laramide orogeny

Nature Geoscience volume 3, pages 353357 (2010) | Download Citation


The cause of the Laramide phase of mountain building remains uncertain1. Conceptual models implicate the subduction of either ocean ridges2 or conjugates of the buoyant Hess3 or Shatsky4 oceanic plateaux. Independent verification of these models has remained elusive, because the putative ridges or plateaux are no longer at the Earth’s surface. Inverse convection models5 have identified two prominent seismic anomalies on the recovered Farallon plate. Here we combine inverse convection models with reconstructions of plate motions, to show that these seismic anomalies coincide palaeogeographically with the restored positions of the Shatsky and Hess conjugate plateaux as they subducted beneath North America. Specifically, the distribution of Laramide crustal shortening events6 tracked the passage of the Shatsky conjugate beneath North America, whereas the effects of the Hess conjugate subduction were restricted to the northern Mexico foreland belt7. We propose that continued subduction caused the oceanic crust to undergo the basalt–eclogite phase transformation, during which the Shatsky conjugate lost its extra buoyancy and was effectively removed. Increases in slab density and coupling between the overriding and subducting plates initially dragged the surface downward, followed by regional-scale surface rebound. We conclude that Laramide uplift resulted from the removal, rather than emplacement, of the Shatsky conjugate.

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We thank D. Helmberger, D. Anderson, P. DeCelles and K. Karlstrom for helpful discussions and P. DeCelles for a helpful review. This represents Contribution number 10026 of the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences and 102 of the Tectonics Observatory, Caltech. At Caltech this work has been supported by the National Science Foundation (EAR-0739071 and EAR-0810303) and through the Tectonics Observatory by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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  1. Seismological Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91125, USA

    • Lijun Liu
    • , Michael Gurnis
    •  & Jennifer M. Jackson
  2. EarthByte Group, School of Geosciences, University of Sydney, New South Wales 2006, Australia

    • Maria Seton
    •  & R. Dietmar Müller
  3. Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91125, USA

    • Jason Saleeby


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L.L. and M.G. designed the whole workflow and carried out the inverse convection model, M.S. and R.D.M. carried out the plate reconstruction, J.S. worked on the geological interpretation and J.M.J. provided mineral physics analysis. All authors participated in preparing the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Lijun Liu.

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