Crustal structure of the Colorado Plateau, Arizona: Application of new long-offset seismic data analysis techniques

Tom Parsons, Jill McCarthy, William M. Kohler, Charles J. Ammon, Harley M. Benz, J. A. Hole, Edward E. Criley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

52 Scopus citations


The Colorado Plateau is a large crustal block in the southwestern United States that has been raised intact nearly 2 km above sea level since Cretaceous marine sediments were deposited on its surface. Controversy exists concerning the thickness of the plateau crust and the source of its buoyancy. Interpretations of seismic data collected on the plateau vary as to whether the crust is closer to 40 or 50 km thick. A thick crust could support the observed topography of the Colorado Plateau isostatically, while a thinner crust would indicate the presence of an underlying low-density mantle. This paper reports results on long-offset seismic data collected during the 1989 segment of the U.S. Geological Survey Pacific to Arizona Crustal Experiment that extended from the Transition Zone into the Colorado Plateau in northwest Arizona. We apply two new methods to analyze long-offset data that employ finite difference travel time calculations: (1) a first-arrival time inverter to find upper crustal velocity structure and (2) a forward-modeling technique that allows the direct use of the inverted upper crustal solution in modeling secondary reflected arrivals. We find that the crustal thickness increases from 30 km beneath the metamorphic core complexes in the southern Basin and Range province to about 42 km beneath the northern Transition Zone and southern Colorado Plateau margin. We observe some crustal thinning (to ∼37 km thick) and slightly higher lower crustal velocities farther inboard; beneath the Kaibab uplift on the north rim of the Grand Canyon the crust thickens to a maximum of 48 km. We observe a nonuniform crustal thickness beneath the Colorado Plateau that varies by ∼15% and corresponds approximately to variations in topography with the thickest crust underlying the highest elevations. Crustal compositions (as inferred from seismic velocities) appear to be the same beneath the Colorado Plateau as those in the Basin and Range province to the southwest, implying that the plateau crust represents an unextended version of the Basin and Range. Some of the variability in crustal structure appears to correspond to preserved lithospheric discontinuities that date back to the Proterozoic Era.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)11173-11194
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 10 1996

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Geophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


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