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Title: Cenozoic slip along the southern Sierra Nevada normal fault, California (USA): A long-lived stable western boundary of the Basin and Range
The uplift history of the Sierra Nevada, California, is a topic of long-standing disagreement with much of it centered on the timing and nature of slip along the range-bounding normal fault along the east flank of the southern Sierra Nevada. The history of normal fault slip is important for characterizing the uplift history of the Sierra Nevada, as well as for characterizing the geologic and geodynamic factors that drove, and continue to drive, normal faulting. To address these issues, we completed new structural studies and extensive apatite (U-Th)/He (AHe) thermochronometry on samples collected from three vertical transects in the footwall to the east-dipping southern Sierra Nevada normal fault (SNNF). Our structural studies on bedrock fault planes show that the SNNF is a steeply (~70°) east-dipping normal fault. The new AHe data reveal two elevation-invariant AHe age arrays, indicative of two distinct periods of cooling and exhumation, which we interpret as initiation of normal faulting along the SNNF at ca. 28–27 Ma with a second phase of normal faulting at ca. 17–13 Ma. We argue that beginning in the late Oligocene, the SNNF marked the now long-standing stable western limit, or break-away zone, of the Basin and Range. Slip along SNNF, and the associated unloading of the footwall, likely resulted in two periods of uplift of Sierra Nevada during the late Cenozoic. Trench retreat, driven by westward motion of the North American plate, along the Farallon–North American subduction zone boundary, as well as the gravitationally unstable northern and southern Basin and Range pushing on the cold Sierra Nevada, likely drove the late Oligocene- aged normal slip along the SNNF and the similar-aged but generally local and minor extension within the Basin and Range. We posit that the thick proto–Basin and Range lithosphere was primed for late Oligocene extension by replacement of the steepening Farallon slab with hot and buoyant asthenosphere. While steepening of the Farallon slab had not yet reached the southern Sierra Nevada by late Oligocene time, we speculate that late Oligocene slip along the SNNF reactivated a late Cretaceous dextral shear zone as the Sierra Nevada block was pulled and pushed westward in response to trench retreat and gravitational potential energy. The dominant middle Miocene normal fault-slip history along the SNNF is contemporaneous with high-magnitude slip recorded along range-bounding normal faults across the Basin and Range, including the east-adjacent Inyo and White mountains, indicating that this period of extension was a major regional tectonic event. We infer that a combination of slab-driven trench retreat along the Juan de Fuca–North America subduction zone boundary and clockwise rotation of the southern ancestral Cascade Range superimposed on continental lithosphere pre-conditioned for extension drove this episode of middle Miocene normal slip along the SNNF and extension to the east across the Basin and Range. Transtensional plate motion along the Pacific–North America plate boundary, and likely a growing slab window, continued to drive extension along the SNNF and the western Basin and Range, but not until ca. 11 Ma when the Mendocino triple junction reached the latitude of our northernmost (U-Th)/He transect.  more » « less
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