Continental delamination and the Colorado Plateau


  • Peter Bird


Continental lithosphere is in unstable mechanical equilibrium because its mantle layer is denser than the asthenosphere. If any process such as cracking, slumping, or plume erosion initially provided an elongated conduit connecting the underlying asthenosphere with the base of the continental crust, the dense lithospheric boundary layer could peel away from the crust and sink. An analytic model for sinking velocities at the critical initial time shows that instability occurs if the effective viscosities of the lower continental crust and the rising asthenosphere are no more than 1019 P. Analogies to subduction suggest that the mature instability would grow laterally at plate tectonic velocities; however, it would be almost aseismic. Loss of the cold mantle boundary layer would cause uplift, increased heat flow, reduced seismic velocities, and perhaps emplacement of basalt flows, mantle diatremes, and granodiorite sills. A one-dimensional thermal model of the formation of a new boundary layer predicts a half life of about 3×107 years for this thermal anomaly and uplift. As an example, the geologic and geophysical data from the Colorado Plateau are shown to be consistent with the hypothesis that it was uplifted by a delamination event 30 m.y. ago and perhaps a second event about 5 m.y. ago.