Seismic imaging and thermal modeling of active continental rifting processes in the Salton Trough, Southern California

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Virginia Tech

Continental rifting ultimately creates a deep accommodation space for sediment. When a major river flows into a late-stage rift, thick deltaic sediment can change the thermal regime and alter the mechanisms of extension and continental breakup. The Salton Trough, the northernmost rift segment of the Gulf of California plate boundary, has experienced the same extension as the rest of the Gulf, but is filled to sea level by sediment from the Colorado River. Unlike the southern Gulf, seafloor spreading has not initiated. Instead, seismicity, high heat flow, and minor volcanoes attest to ongoing rifting of thin, transitional crust.

Recently acquired controlled-source seismic refraction and wide-angle reflection data in the Salton Trough provide constraints upon crustal architecture and active rift processes. The crust in the central Salton Trough is only 17-18 km thick, with a strongly layered but relatively one-dimensional structure for ~100 km in the direction of plate motion. The upper crust includes 2-3 km of Colorado River sediment. The basement below the sediment is interpreted to be similar sediment metamorphosed by the high heat flow and geothermal activity. Meta-sedimentary rock extends to at least 7-8 km depth. A 4-5 km thick layer in the middle crust is either additional meta-sedimentary rock or stretched pre-existing continental crust. The lowermost 4-5 km of the crust is rift-related mafic magmatic material underplated from partial melting in the hot upper mantle.

North American lithosphere in the Salton Trough has been almost or completely rifted apart. The gap has been filled by ~100 km of new transitional crust created by magmatism from below and sedimentation from above. These processes create strong lithologic, thermal, and rheologic layering. Brittle extension occurs within new meta-sedimentary rock. The lower crust, in comparison, stretches by ductile flow and magmatism is not localized. This seismic interpretation is also supported by 1D thermal and rheological modeling. In this passive rift driven by far-field extensional stresses, rapid sedimentation keeps the crust thick and ductile, which delays final breakup of the crust and the initiation of seafloor spreading.

active rifting, crustal structure, Salton Trough, seismic tomography, controlled-source seismic, metamorphism, thermal modeling