Articles | Volume 8, issue 1
Research article
21 Feb 2017
Research article |  | 21 Feb 2017

Rheological transitions in the middle crust: insights from Cordilleran metamorphic core complexes

Frances J. Cooper, John P. Platt, and Whitney M. Behr

Abstract. High-strain mylonitic rocks in Cordilleran metamorphic core complexes reflect ductile deformation in the middle crust, but in many examples it is unclear how these mylonites relate to the brittle detachments that overlie them. Field observations, microstructural analyses, and thermobarometric data from the footwalls of three metamorphic core complexes in the Basin and Range Province, USA (the Whipple Mountains, California; the northern Snake Range, Nevada; and Ruby Mountains–East Humboldt Range, Nevada), suggest the presence of two distinct rheological transitions in the middle crust: (1) the brittle–ductile transition (BDT), which depends on thermal gradient and tectonic regime, and marks the switch from discrete brittle faulting and cataclasis to continuous, but still localized, ductile shear, and (2) the localized–distributed transition, or LDT, a deeper, dominantly temperature-dependent transition, which marks the switch from localized ductile shear to distributed ductile flow. In this model, brittle normal faults in the upper crust persist as ductile shear zones below the BDT in the middle crust, and sole into the subhorizontal LDT at greater depths.

In metamorphic core complexes, the presence of these two distinct rheological transitions results in the development of two zones of ductile deformation: a relatively narrow zone of high-stress mylonite that is spatially and genetically related to the brittle detachment, underlain by a broader zone of high-strain, relatively low-stress rock that formed in the middle crust below the LDT, and in some cases before the detachment was initiated. The two zones show distinct microstructural assemblages, reflecting different conditions of temperature and stress during deformation, and contain superposed sequences of microstructures reflecting progressive exhumation, cooling, and strain localization. The LDT is not always exhumed, or it may be obscured by later deformation, but in the Whipple Mountains, it can be directly observed where high-strain mylonites captured from the middle crust depart from the brittle detachment along a mylonitic front.

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Short summary
We examine how deformation of the Earth’s crust varies with depth beneath the surface. By looking in detail at exhumed rocks from three case studies in the USA, we identify three main deformation zones: 1, a brittle deformation zone (low temperatures mean rocks break along faults and fractures); 2, a localized deformation zone (warmer rocks deform along discrete zones that shear but do not break); and 3, a distributed deformation zone (hot rocks flow ductilely and no discrete shearing occurs).