Magmatism and tectonics of the Sierra Madre Occidental and its relation with the evolution of the western margin of North America

Ferrari, L., Valencia-Moreno, M. and Bryan, S. (2007) Magmatism and tectonics of the Sierra Madre Occidental and its relation with the evolution of the western margin of North America. In: Alaniz-Álvarez, Susana A. and Nieto-Samaniego, Ángel F., (eds.) Geology of Mexico: celebrating the centenary of the Geological Society of Mexico. Boulder, Col., USA : Geological Society of America. pp. 1-39. (Geological Society of America special papers, (422)) ISBN 9780813724225


The Sierra Madre Occidental is the result of Cretaceous-Cenozoic magmatic and tectonic episodes related to the subduction of the Farallon plate beneath North America and to the opening of the Gulf of California. The stratigraphy of the Sierra Madre Occidental consists of fi ve main igneous complexes: (1) Late Cretaceous to Paleocene plutonic and volcanic rocks; (2) Eocene andesites and lesser rhyolites, traditionally grouped into the so-called Lower Volcanic Complex; (3) silicic ignimbrites mainly emplaced during two pulses in the Oligocene (ca. 32–28 Ma) and Early Miocene (ca. 24–20 Ma), and grouped into the “Upper Volcanic Supergroup”; (4) transitional basaltic-andesitic lavas that erupted toward the end of, and after, each ignimbrite pulse, which have been correlated with the Southern Cordillera Basaltic Andesite Province of the southwestern United States; and (5) postsubduction volcanism consisting of alkaline basalts and ignimbrites emplaced in the Late Miocene, Pliocene, and Pleistocene, directly related to the separation of Baja California from the Mexican mainland. The products of all these magmatic episodes, partially overlapping in space and time, cover a poorly exposed, heterogeneous basement with Precambrian to Paleozoic ages in the northern part (Sonora and Chihuahua) and Mesozoic ages beneath the rest of the Sierra Madre Occidental. The oldest intrusive rocks of the Lower Volcanic Complex (ca. 101 to ca. 89 Ma) in Sinaloa, and Maastrichtian volcanics of the Lower Volcanic Complex in central Chihuahua, were affected by moderate contractile deformation during the Laramide orogeny. In the fi nal stages of this deformation cycle, during the Paleocene and Early Eocene, ~E-W to ENE-WSW–trending extensional structures formed within the Lower Volcanic Complex, along which the world-class porphyry copper deposits of the Sierra Madre Occidental were emplaced. Extensional tectonics began as early as the Oligocene along the entire eastern half of the Sierra Madre Occidental, forming grabens bounded by high-angle normal faults, which have traditionally been referred to as the southern (or Mexican) Basin and Range Province. In the Early to Middle Miocene, extension migrated westward. In northern Sonora, the deformation was sufficiently intense to exhume lower crustal rocks, whereas in the rest of the Sierra Madre Occidental, crustal extension did not exceed 20%. By the Late Miocene, extension became focused in the westernmost part of the Sierra Madre Occidental, adjacent to the Gulf of California, where NNW-striking normal fault systems produced both ENE and WSW tilt domains separated by transverse accommodation zones. It is worth noting that most of the extension occurred when subduction of the Farallon plate was still active off Baja California. Geochemical data show that the Sierra Madre Occidental rocks form a typical calc-alkaline rhyolite suite with intermediate to high K and relatively low Fe contents. Late Eocene to Miocene volcanism is clearly bimodal, but silicic compositions are volumetrically dominant. Initial 87Sr/86Sr ratios mostly range between 0.7041 and 0.7070, and initial εNd values are generally intermediate between crust and mantle values (+2.3 and −3.2). Based on isotopic data of volcanic rocks and crustal xenoliths from a few sites in the Sierra Madre Occidental, contrasting models for the genesis of the silicic volcanism have been proposed. A considerable body of work led by Ken Cameron and others considered the mid-Tertiary Sierra Madre Occidental silicic magmas to have formed by fractional crystallization of mantle-derived mafi c magmas with little (<15%) or no crustal involvement. In contrast, other workers have suggested the rhyolites, taken to the extreme case, could be entirely the result of partial melting of the crust in response to thermal and material input from basaltic underplating. Several lines of evidence suggest that Sierra Madre Occidental ignimbrite petrogenesis involved large-scale mixing and assimilation-fractional crystallization processes of crustal and mantle-derived melts. Geophysical data indicate that the crust in the unextended core of the northern Sierra Madre Occidental is ~55 km-thick, but thins to ~40 km to the east. The anomalous thickness in the core of the Sierra Madre Occidental suggests that the lower crust was largely intruded by mafi c magmas. In the westernmost Sierra Madre Occidental adjacent to the Gulf of California, crustal thickness is ~25 km, implying over 100% of extension. However, structures at the surface indicate no more than ~50% extension. The upper mantle beneath the Sierra Madre Occidental is characterized by a low velocity anomaly, typical of the asthenosphere, which also occurs beneath the Basin and Range Province of the western United States. The review of the magmatic and tectonic history presented in this work suggests that the Sierra Madre Occidental has been strongly infl uenced by the Cretaceous-Cenozoic evolution of the western North America subduction system. In particular, the Oligo-Miocene Sierra Madre Occidental is viewed as a silicic large igneous province formed as the precursor to the opening of the Gulf of California during and immediately following the final stages of the subduction of the Farallon plate. The mechanism responsible for the generation of the ignimbrite pulses seems related to the removal of the Farallon plate from the base of the North American plate after the end of the Laramide orogeny. The rapid increase in the subduction angle due to slab roll-back and, possibly, the detachment of the deeper part of the subducted slab as younger and buoyant oceanic lithosphere arrived at the paleotrench, resulted in extension of the continental margin, eventually leading to direct interaction between the Pacific and North American plates.

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