Basin and Range Province

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One of various geographical definitions of the Province Basin and Range Province Boundaries and Landmarks.svg
One of various geographical definitions of the Province

The Basin and Range Province is a vast physiographic region covering much of the inland Western United States and northwestern Mexico. It is defined by unique basin and range topography, characterized by abrupt changes in elevation, alternating between narrow faulted mountain chains and flat arid valleys or basins. The physiography of the province is the result of tectonic extension that began around 17 million years ago in the early Miocene epoch.

United States physiographic region classification system for landforms of the lower 48 United States by N. M. Fenneman

This list of physiographic regions of the contiguous United States identifies the 8 regions, 25 provinces, and 85 sections. The system dates to Nevin Fenneman's paper Physiographic Subdivision of the United States, published in 1917. Fenneman expanded and presented his system more fully in two books, Physiography of western United States (1931), and Physiography of eastern United States (1938). In these works Fenneman described 25 provinces and 85 sections of the United States physiography.

Western United States Region in the United States

The Western United States is the region comprising the westernmost states of the United States. As European settlement in the U.S. expanded westward through the centuries, the meaning of the term the West changed. Before about 1800, the crest of the Appalachian Mountains was seen as the western frontier. The frontier moved westward and eventually the lands west of the Mississippi River were considered the West.

Northern Mexico Cultural region of Mexico

Northern Mexico, commonly referred as El Norte, is an informal term for the northern cultural and geographical area in Mexico. Depending on the source, it contains some or all of the states of Baja California, Baja California Sur, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Durango, Nuevo León, Sinaloa, Sonora and Tamaulipas.


The numerous ranges within the province in the United States are collectively referred to as the "Great Basin Ranges", although many are not actually in the Great Basin. Major ranges include the Snake Range, the Panamint Range, the White Mountains, the Sandia Mountains, and the Tetons. The highest point fully within the province is White Mountain Peak in California, while the lowest point is the Badwater Basin in Death Valley at −282 feet (−86 m). [1] The province's climate is arid, with numerous ecoregions. Most North American deserts are located within it.

Great Basin large depression in western North America

The Great Basin is the largest area of contiguous endorheic watersheds in North America. It spans nearly all of Nevada, much of Oregon and Utah, and portions of California, Idaho, and Wyoming. It is noted for both its arid climate and the basin and range topography that varies from the North American low point at Badwater Basin to the highest point of the contiguous United States, less than 100 miles (160 km) away at the summit of Mount Whitney. The region spans several physiographic divisions, biomes, ecoregions, and deserts.

Snake Range

The Snake Range is a mountain range in White Pine County, Nevada, United States. The south-central portion of the range is included within Great Basin National Park, with most of the remainder included within the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. The range reaches a maximum elevation of 13,065 feet (3,982 m) at the summit of Wheeler Peak, the tallest independent mountain within Nevada and the second highest point within the state. The range also contains four of the five highest mountain peaks in Nevada, including all peaks greater than 12,000 feet (3,658 m) except for Boundary Peak.

Panamint Range mountain range

The Panamint Range is a short rugged fault-block mountain range in the northern Mojave Desert, within Death Valley National Park in Inyo County, eastern California. Dr. Darwin French is credited as applying the term Panamint in 1860 during his search for the fabled Gunsight Lode. The orographic identity has been liberally applied for decades to include other ranges.

Clarence Dutton famously compared the many narrow parallel mountain ranges that distinguish the unique topography of the Basin and Range to an "army of caterpillars marching toward Mexico." [2] The Basin and Range Province should not be confused with The Great Basin, which is a sub-section of the greater Basin and Range physiographic region defined by its unique hydrological characteristics (internal drainage).

Clarence Dutton American geologist

Clarence Edward Dutton was an American geologist and US Army officer. Dutton was born in Wallingford, Connecticut on May 15, 1841. He graduated from Yale College in 1860 and took postgraduate courses there until 1862, when he enlisted in the 21st Connecticut Volunteer Infantry; he fought at Fredericksburg, Suffolk, Nashville and Petersburg.


NASA satellite photo of typical Basin and Range topography across central Nevada Basin range province.jpg
NASA satellite photo of typical Basin and Range topography across central Nevada

The Basin and Range Province includes much of western North America. In the United States, it is bordered on the west by the eastern fault scarp of the Sierra Nevada and spans over 500 miles (800 km) to its eastern border marked by the Wasatch Fault, the Colorado Plateau and the Rio Grande Rift. The province extends north to the Columbia Plateau and south as far as the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt in Mexico, though the southern boundaries of the Basin and Range are debated. [3] In Mexico, the Basin and Range Province is dominated by and largely synonymous with the Mexican Plateau.

North America Continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere

North America is a continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere; it is also considered by some to be a northern subcontinent of the Americas. It is bordered to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, to the west and south by the Pacific Ocean, and to the southeast by South America and the Caribbean Sea.

Fault scarp A small step or offset on the ground surface where one side of a fault has moved vertically with respect to the other

A fault scarp is a small step or offset on the ground surface where one side of a fault has moved vertically with respect to the other. It is the topographic expression of faulting attributed to the displacement of the land surface by movement along faults. They are exhibited either by differential movement and subsequent erosion along an old inactive geologic fault, or by a movement on a recent active fault.

Sierra Nevada (U.S.) mountain range

The Sierra Nevada is a mountain range in the Western United States, between the Central Valley of California and the Great Basin. The vast majority of the range lies in the state of California, although the Carson Range spur lies primarily in Nevada. The Sierra Nevada is part of the American Cordillera, a chain of mountain ranges that consists of an almost continuous sequence of such ranges that form the western "backbone" of North America, Central America, South America and Antarctica.

Evidence suggests that the less-recognized southern portion of the province is bounded on the east by the Laramide Thrust Front of the Sierra Madre Oriental and on the west by the Gulf of California and Baja Peninsula with notably less faulting apparent in the Sierra Madre Occidental in the center of the southernmost Basin and Range Province. [4]

Laramide orogeny Mountain building in Western North America, 80-35 million years ago

The Laramide orogeny was a period of mountain building in western North America, which started in the Late Cretaceous, 70 to 80 million years ago, and ended 35 to 55 million years ago. The exact duration and ages of beginning and end of the orogeny are in dispute. The Laramide orogeny occurred in a series of pulses, with quiescent phases intervening. The major feature that was created by this orogeny was deep-seated, thick-skinned deformation, with evidence of this orogeny found from Canada to northern Mexico, with the easternmost extent of the mountain-building represented by the Black Hills of South Dakota. The phenomenon is named for the Laramie Mountains of eastern Wyoming. The Laramide orogeny is sometimes confused with the Sevier orogeny, which partially overlapped in time and space.

Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range in Mexico

The Sierra Madre Oriental is a mountain range in northeastern Mexico. The Sierra Madre Oriental is part of the American Cordillera, a chain of mountain ranges (cordillera) that consists of an almost continuous sequence of mountain ranges that form the western "backbone" of North America, Central America, South America and Antarctica.

Gulf of California A gulf of the Pacific Ocean between the Baja peninsula and the Mexican mainland

The Gulf of California is a marginal sea of the Pacific Ocean that separates the Baja California Peninsula from the Mexican mainland. It is bordered by the states of Baja California, Baja California Sur, Sonora, and Sinaloa with a coastline of approximately 4,000 km (2,500 mi). Rivers which flow into the Gulf of California include the Colorado, Fuerte, Mayo, Sinaloa, Sonora, and the Yaqui. The gulf's surface area is about 160,000 km2 (62,000 sq mi). Depths range from fording at the estuary near Yuma, Arizona, to in excess of 3,000 meters (9,800 ft) in the deepest parts.

Common geographic features include numerous endorheic basins, ephemeral lakes, plateaus, and valleys alternating with mountains (as described below). The area is mostly arid and sparsely populated, although there are several major metropolitan areas, such as Las Vegas, Phoenix and Tucson.

Las Vegas City in Nevada, United States

Las Vegas, officially the City of Las Vegas and often known simply as Vegas, is the 28th-most populated city in the United States, the most populated city in the state of Nevada, and the county seat of Clark County. The city anchors the Las Vegas Valley metropolitan area and is the largest city within the greater Mojave Desert. Las Vegas is an internationally renowned major resort city, known primarily for its gambling, shopping, fine dining, entertainment, and nightlife. The Las Vegas Valley as a whole serves as the leading financial, commercial, and cultural center for Nevada.

Phoenix, Arizona State capital city in Arizona, United States

Phoenix is the capital and most populous city of Arizona, with 1,626,000 people. It is also the fifth most populous city in the United States, and the most populous American state capital, and the only state capital with a population of more than one million residents.

Tucson, Arizona City in Arizona, United States

Tucson is a city and the county seat of Pima County, Arizona, United States, and home to the University of Arizona. The 2010 United States Census put the population at 520,116, while the 2015 estimated population of the entire Tucson metropolitan statistical area (MSA) was 980,263. The Tucson MSA forms part of the larger Tucson-Nogales combined statistical area (CSA), with a total population of 1,010,025 as of the 2010 Census. Tucson is the second-largest populated city in Arizona behind Phoenix, both of which anchor the Arizona Sun Corridor. The city is 108 miles (174 km) southeast of Phoenix and 60 mi (97 km) north of the U.S.–Mexico border. Tucson is the 33rd largest city and the 58th largest metropolitan area in the United States (2014).


It is generally accepted that basin and range topography is the result of extension and thinning of the lithosphere, which is composed of crust and upper mantle. Extensional environments like the Basin and Range are characterized by listric normal faulting, or faults that level out with depth. Opposing normal faults link at depth producing a horst and graben geometry, where horst refers to the upthrown fault block and graben to the down dropped fault block.

The average crustal thickness of the Basin and Range Province is approximately 30 – 35 km and is comparable to extended continental crust around the world. [5] The crust in conjunction with the upper mantle comprises the lithosphere. The base of the lithosphere beneath the Basin and Range is estimated to be about 60 – 70 km. [6] Opinions vary regarding the total extension of the region; however, the median estimate is about 100% total lateral extension. [7] Total lateral displacement in the Basin and Range varies from 60 – 300 km since the onset of extension in the Early Miocene with the southern portion of the province representing a greater degree of displacement than the north. Evidence exists to suggest that extension initially began in the southern Basin and Range and propagated north over time. [8]


Snake Range MtMoriahNV.jpg
Snake Range

The tectonic mechanisms responsible for lithospheric extension in the Basin and Range province are controversial, and several competing hypotheses attempt to explain it. Key events preceding Basin and Range extension in the western United States include a long period of compression due to the subduction of the Farallon Plate under the west coast of the North American continental plate which stimulated the thickening of the crust. Most of the pertinent tectonic plate movement associated with the province occurred in Neogene time and continues to the present. By Early Miocene time, much of the Farallon Plate had been consumed, and the seafloor spreading ridge that separated the Farallon Plate from the Pacific Plate (East Pacific Rise) approached North America. [9] In the Middle Miocene, the East Pacific Rise was subducted beneath North America ending subduction along this part of the Pacific margin; however, the Farallon Plate continued to subduct into the mantle. [9] The movement at this boundary divided the East Pacific Rise and spawned the San Andreas transform fault, generating an oblique strike-slip component. [10] Today, the Pacific Plate moves north-westward relative to North America, a configuration which has given rise to increased shearing along the continental margin. [9]

The tectonic activity responsible for the extension in the Basin and Range is a complex and controversial issue among the geoscience community. The most accepted hypothesis suggests that crustal shearing associated with the San Andreas Fault caused spontaneous extensional faulting similar to that seen in the Great Basin. [11] However, plate movement alone does not account for the high elevation of the Basin and Range region. [12] The western United States is a region of high heat flow which lowers the density of the lithosphere and stimulates isostatic uplift as a consequence. [13] Lithospheric regions characterized by elevated heat flow are weak and extensional deformation can occur over a broad region. Basin and Range extension is therefore thought to be unrelated to the kind of extension produced by mantle upwelling which may cause narrow rift zones, such as the Afar Triple Junction. [14] Geologic processes that elevate heat flow are varied, however some researchers suggest that heat generated at a subduction zone is transferred to the overriding plate as subduction proceeds. Fluids along fault zones then transfer heat vertically through the crust. [15] This model has led to increasing interest in geothermal systems in the Basin and Range, and requires consideration of the continued influence of the fully subducted Farallon plate in the extension responsible for the Basin and Range Province.

Metamorphic core complexes

In some localities in the Basin and Range, metamorphic basement is visible at the surface. Some of these are metamorphic core complex (MCC), an idea that was first developed based on studies in this province. A metamorphic core complex occurs when lower crust is brought to the surface as a result of extension. MCCs in the Basin and Range were not interpreted as being related to crustal extension until after the 1960s. Since then, similar deformational patterns have been identified in MCCs in the Basin and Range and has led geologists to examine them as a group of related geologic features formed by Cenozoic crustal extension. The study of metamorphic core complexes has provided valuable insight into the extensional processes driving Basin and Range formation. [16]


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Basin and Range Volcanism in Western United States

Prior to the Eocene Epoch (55.8 ±0.2 to 33.9 ±0.1 Ma) the convergence rate of the Farallon and North American Plates was fast, the angle of subduction was shallow, and the slab width was huge. During the Eocene the Farallon Plate subduction-associated compressive forces of the Laramide, Sevier and Nevada orogenies ended, plate interactions changed from orthogonal compression to oblique strike-slip, and volcanism in the Basin and Range Province flared up (Mid-Tertiary ignimbrite flare-up). It is suggested that this plate continued to be underthrust until about 19 Ma, at which time it was completely consumed and volcanic activity ceased, in part. Olivine basalt from the oceanic ridge erupted around 17 Ma and extension began. [17] [18] [19] [20]

Volcanic areas

Mineral resources

In addition to small amounts of Nevada petroleum, the Basin and Range Province supplies nearly all the copper and most of the gold, silver, and barite mined in the United States.[ citation needed ]

See also

Related Research Articles

Rio Grande rift

The Rio Grande rift is a north-trending continental rift zone. It separates the Colorado Plateau in the west from the interior of the North American craton on the east. The rift extends from central Colorado in the north to the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, in the south. The rift zone consists of four basins that have an average width of 50 kilometers. The rift can be observed on location at Rio Grande National Forest, White Sands National Monument, Santa Fe National Forest, and Cibola National Forest, among other locations.

Subduction A geological process at convergent tectonic plate boundaries where one plate moves under the other

Subduction is a geological process that takes place at convergent boundaries of tectonic plates where one plate moves under another and is forced to sink due to gravity into the mantle. Regions where this process occurs are known as subduction zones. Rates of subduction are typically in centimeters per year, with the average rate of convergence being approximately two to eight centimeters per year along most plate boundaries.

Obduction was originally defined by Coleman to mean the overthrusting of oceanic lithosphere onto continental lithosphere at a convergent plate boundary where continental lithosphere is being subducted beneath oceanic lithosphere.

In geology, the slab gap hypothesis is one of the explanations put forward to explain several instances of crustal extension that occur inland near former subduction zones.

Convergent boundary Region of active deformation between colliding lithospheric plates

A convergent boundary is an area on Earth where two or more lithospheric plates collide. One plate eventually slides beneath the other causing a process known as subduction. The subduction zone can be defined by a plane where many earthquakes occur, called the Benioff Zone. These collisions happen on scales of millions to tens of millions of years and can lead to volcanism, earthquakes, orogenesis, destruction of lithosphere, and deformation. Convergent boundaries occur between oceanic-oceanic lithosphere, oceanic-continental lithosphere, and continental-continental lithosphere. The geologic features related to convergent boundaries vary depending on crust types.

North American Plate Large tectonic plate including most of North America, Greenland and a bit of Siberia

The North American Plate is a tectonic plate covering most of North America, Greenland, Cuba, the Bahamas, extreme northeastern Asia, and parts of Iceland and the Azores. It extends eastward to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and westward to the Chersky Range in eastern Siberia. The plate includes both continental and oceanic crust. The interior of the main continental landmass includes an extensive granitic core called a craton. Along most of the edges of this craton are fragments of crustal material called terranes, accreted to the craton by tectonic actions over a long span of time. It is thought that much of North America west of the Rocky Mountains is composed of such terranes.

Geology of the United States regional geology

The richly textured landscape of the United States is a product of the dueling forces of plate tectonics, weathering and erosion. Over the 4.5 billion-year history of our Earth, tectonic upheavals and colliding plates have raised great mountain ranges while the forces of erosion and weathering worked to tear them down. Even after many millions of years, records of Earth's great upheavals remain imprinted as textural variations and surface patterns that define distinctive landscapes or provinces.

Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt arc of volcanic mountains across central-southern Mexico

The Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, also known as the Transvolcanic Belt and locally as the Sierra Nevada, is a volcanic belt that covers central-southern Mexico. Several of its highest peaks have snow all year long, and during clear weather, they are visible to a large percentage of those who live on the many high plateaus from which these volcanoes rise.

Sevier orogeny

The Sevier orogeny was a mountain-building event that affected western North America from Canada to the north to Mexico to the south.

Northern Cordilleran Volcanic Province

The Northern Cordilleran Volcanic Province (NCVP), formerly known as the Stikine Volcanic Belt, is a geologic province defined by the occurrence of Miocene to Holocene volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest of North America. This belt of volcanoes extends roughly north-northwest from northwestern British Columbia and the Alaska Panhandle through Yukon to the Southeast Fairbanks Census Area of far eastern Alaska, in a corridor hundreds of kilometres wide. It is the most recently defined volcanic province in the Western Cordillera. It has formed due to extensional cracking of the North American continent—similar to other on-land extensional volcanic zones, including the Basin and Range Province and the East African Rift. Although taking its name from the Western Cordillera, this term is a geologic grouping rather than a geographic one. The southmost part of the NCVP has more, and larger, volcanoes than does the rest of the NCVP; further north it is less clearly delineated, describing a large arch that sways westward through central Yukon.

Detachment fault

Detachment faulting is associated with large-scale extensional tectonics. Detachment faults often have very large displacements and juxtapose unmetamorphosed hanging walls against medium to high-grade metamorphic footwalls that are called metamorphic core complexes. They are thought to have formed as either initially low-angle structures or by the rotation of initially high-angle normal faults modified also by the isostatic effects of tectonic denudation. Examples of detachment faulting include:

Geology of the Pacific Northwest geology of Oregon and Washington (United States) and British Columbia (Canada)

The geology of the Pacific Northwest includes the composition, structure, physical properties and the processes that shape the Pacific Northwest region of the United States and Canada. The region is part of the Ring of Fire: the subduction of the Pacific and Farallon Plates under the North American Plate is responsible for many of the area's scenic features as well as some of its hazards, such as volcanoes, earthquakes, and landslides.

Delamination (geology)

In geophysics, delamination refers to the loss and sinking (foundering) of the portion of the lowermost lithosphere from the tectonic plate to which it was attached.

Coast Range Arc

The Coast Range Arc was a large volcanic arc system, extending from northern Washington through British Columbia and the Alaska Panhandle to southwestern Yukon. The Coast Range Arc lies along the western margin of the North American Plate in the Pacific Northwest of western North America. Although taking its name from the Coast Mountains, this term is a geologic grouping rather than a geographic one, and the Coast Range Arc extended south into the High Cascades of the Cascade Range, past the Fraser River which is the northward limit of the Cascade Range proper.

This is a list of articles related to plate tectonics and tectonic plates.

Geology of North America regional geology of North America

The geology of North America is a subject of regional geology and covers the North American continent, third-largest in the world. Geologic units and processes are investigated on a large scale to reach a synthesized picture of the geological development of the continent.

Opening of the North Atlantic Ocean

The opening of the North Atlantic Ocean is a geological event that occurred over millions of years, during which the supercontinent Pangea broke up. As modern-day Europe and North America separated during the final breakup of Pangea in the early Cenozoic Era, they formed the North Atlantic Ocean. Geologists believe the breakup occurred either due to primary processes of the Iceland plume or secondary processes of lithospheric extension from plate tectonics.

Geology of Myanmar

The geology of Myanmar is shaped by dramatic, ongoing tectonic processes controlled by shifting tectonic components as the Indian plate slides northwards and towards southeastern Asia. Myanmar spans across parts of three tectonic plates separated by north-trending faults. To the west, a highly oblique subduction zone separates the offshore Indian plate from the Burma microplate, which underlies most of the country. In the center-east of Myanmar, a right lateral strike slip fault extends from south to north across more than 1000 km. These tectonic zones are responsible for large earthquakes in the region. The India-Eurasia plate collision which initiated in the Eocene provides the last geological pieces of Myanmar, and thus Myanmar preserves a more extensive Cenozoic geological record as compared to records of the Mesozoic and Paleozoic eras. Myanmar is physiographically divided into three regions: the Indo-Burman Range, Myanmar Central Belt and the Shan Plateau; these all display an arcuate shape bulging westwards. The varying regional tectonic settings of Myanmar not only give rise to disparate regional features, but they also foster the formation of petroleum basins and a diverse mix of mineral resources.

The geology of Nevada began to form in the Proterozoic at the western margin of North America. Terranes accreted to the continent as a marine environment dominated the area through the Paleozoic and Mesozoic periods. Intense volcanism, the horst and graben landscape of the Basin and Range Province originating from the Farallon Plate, and both glaciers and valley lakes have played important roles in the region throughout the past 66 million years.


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Further reading