More than one way to stretch: A tectonic model for extension along the plume track of the Yellowstone hotspot and adjacent Basin and Range Province

  • Parsons T
  • Thompson G
  • Smith R
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The eastern Snake River Plain of southern Idaho poses a paradoxical problem because it is nearly aseismic and unfaulted although it appears to be actively extending in a SW-NE direction continuously with the adjacent block-faulted Basin and Range Province. The plain represents the 100-km-wide track of the Yellowstone hotspot during the last ∼16–17 m.y., and its crust has been heavily intruded by mafic magma, some of which has erupted to the surface as extensive basalt flows. Outside the plain's distinct topographic boundaries is a transition zone 30–100 km wide that has variable expression of normal faulting and magmatic activity as compared with the surrounding Basin and Range Province. Many models for the evolution of the Snake River Plain have as an integral component the suggestion that the crust of the plain became strong enough through basaltic intrusion to resist extensional deformation. However, both the boundaries of the plain and its transition zone lack any evidence of zones of strike slip or other accommodation that would allow the plain to remain intact while the Basin and Range Province extended around it; instead, the plain is coupled to its surroundings and extending with them. We estimate strain rates for the northern Basin and Range Province from various lines of evidence and show that these strains would far exceed the elastic limit of any rocks coupled to the Basin and Range; thus, if the plain is extending along with its surroundings, as the geologic evidence indicates, it must be doing so by a nearly aseismic process. Evidence of the process is provided by volcanic rift zones, indicators of subsurface dikes, which trend across the plain perpendicular to its axis. We suggest that variable magmatic strain accommodation, by emplacement and inflation of dikes perpendicular to the least principal stress in the elastic crust, allows the crust of the plain to extend nearly aseismically. Dike injection releases accumulated elastic strain but generates only the small earthquakes associated with dike propagation. The rate of dike emplacement required to accommodate the estimated longitudinal strain rate of the plain is roughly a composite width of 10 m every 1000 years for the geologically youngest and most active part of the plain. The locus of most rapid intrusion and strain has migrated toward Yellowstone and is now in the northeastern 100–150 km of the plain. Reduced magmatic input in the transition zone of the plain causes the transitional expression of seismicity and faulting there.

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  • Tom Parsons

  • George A. Thompson

  • Richard P. Smith

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