Estimates of large magnitude Late Cambrian earthquakes from seismogenic soft-sediment deformation structures: Central Rocky Mountains



A variety of unusual early post-depositional deformation structures exist in grainstone and flat-pebble conglomerate beds of Upper Cambrian strata, western Colorado, including slide scarps, thrusted beds, irregular blocks and internally deformed beds. Thrusted beds up to tens of centimetres thick record thrust movement of a part of a bed onto itself along a moderate to steeply inclined (15° to 40°) ramp, locally producing hanging wall lenses with fault-bend geometries. Thrust plane orientations are widely distributed, and in some cases nearly oppositely oriented in close proximity, indicating that they did not form as failures acted upon by gravity forces. Irregular bedded to internally deformed blocks are isolated on generally flat upper bedding surfaces. These features represent parts of beds that detached, moved up onto and some distances across, the laterally adjacent undisturbed bed surfaces. Deformation of thin intervals of mud on the ocean floor by moving blocks rules out the possibility of storm-induced deformation, because the mud was not eroded by high shear stresses that would accompany the extremely large forces required to produce and move the blocks. Finally, internally deformed beds are characterized by large blocks, fitted fabrics of highly irregular fragments and contorted lamination, which represent heterogeneous deformation, such as brecciation and liquefaction. The deformation structures were produced by earthquakes linked to the reactivation of Mesoproterozoic, crustal-scale shear zones in the central Rockies during the Late Cambrian. Analysis of the deformation structures indicates very large body forces and calculated earthquake-generated ground motion velocities of ca 1·6 m sec−1. These correspond to moment magnitudes of ca 7·0 or more and a Mercalli Intensity of X+. These are the only known magnitude estimates of Phanerozoic (other than Quaternary) large-intensity earthquakes for the Rocky Mountain region, and they are as large as, or larger than, previous estimates of Proterozoic earthquakes along these major shear zones of the central Rockies.