The North American upper mantle: density, composition, and evolution

Journal of Geophysical Research B: Solid Earth

DOI: 10.1029/2010JB000866



The upper mantle of North America has been well studied using various seismic methods. Here we investigate the density structure of the North American (NA) upper mantle based on the integrative use of the gravity field and seismic data. The basis of our study is the removal of the gravitational effect of the crust to determine the mantle gravity anomalies. The effect of the crust is removed in three steps by subtracting the gravitational contributions of (1) topography and bathymetry, (2) low-density sedimentary accumulations, and (3) the three-dimensional density structure of the crystalline crust as determined by seismic observations. Information regarding sedimentary accumulations, including thickness and density, are taken from published maps and summaries of borehole measurements of densities; the seismic structure of the crust is based on a recent compilation, with layer densities estimated from P-wave velocities. The resultant mantle gravity anomaly map shows a pronounced negative anomaly (−50 to −400 mGal) beneath western North America and the adjacent oceanic region and positive anomalies (+50 to +350 mGal) east of the NA Cordillera. This pattern reflects the well-known division of North America into the stable eastern region and the tectonically active western region. The close correlation of large-scale features of the mantle anomaly map with those of the topographic map indicates that a significant amount of the topographic uplift in western NA is due to buoyancy in the hot upper mantle, a conclusion supported by previous investigations. To separate the contributions of mantle temperature anomalies from mantle compositional anomalies, we apply an additional correction to the mantle anomaly map for the thermal structure of the uppermost mantle. The thermal model is based on the conversion of seismic shear-wave velocities to temperature and is consistent with mantle temperatures that are independently estimated from heat flow and heat production data. The thermally corrected mantle density map reveals density anomalies that are chiefly due to compositional variations. These compositional density anomalies cause gravitational anomalies that reach ~250 mGal. A pronounced negative anomaly (−50 to −200 mGal) is found over the Canadian shield, which is consistent with chemical depletion and a corresponding low density of the lithospheric mantle, also referred to as the mantle tectosphere. The strongest positive anomaly is coincident with the Gulf of Mexico and indicates a positive density anomaly in the upper mantle, possibly an eclogite layer that has caused subsidence in the Gulf. Two linear positive anomalies are also seen south of 40°N: one with a NE-SW trend in the eastern United States, roughly coincident with the Grenville-Appalachians, and a second with a NW-SE trend beneath the states of Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado. These anomalies are interpreted as being due to (1) the presence of remnants of an oceanic slab in the upper mantle beneath the Grenville-Appalachian suture and (2) mantle thickening caused by a period of shallow, flat subduction during the Laramie orogeny, respectively. Based on these geophysical results, the evolution of the NA upper mantle is depicted in a series of maps and cartoons that display the primary processes that have formed and modified the NA crust and lithospheric upper mantle.

Geospatial Extents

Additional Publication Details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
Journal Article
The North American upper mantle: density, composition, and evolution
Series title:
Journal of Geophysical Research B: Solid Earth
Year Published:
American Geophysical Union
Publisher location:
Washington, D.C.
Contributing office(s):
Earthquake Science Center
24 p.; B12424
Larger Work Type:
Larger Work Subtype:
Journal Article
Other Geospatial:
North America