It has been agreed for nearly a century that a strong, load-bearing outer layer of earth is required to support mountain ranges, transmit stresses to deform active regions and store elastic strain to generate earthquakes. However the dept and extent of this strong layer remain controversial. Here we use a variety of observations to infer the distribution of lithospheric strength in the active western United States from seismic to steady-state time scales. We use evidence from post-seismic transient and earthquake cycle deformation reservoir loading glacio-isostatic adjustment, and lithosphere isostatic adjustment to large surface and subsurface loads. The nearly perfectly elastic behavior of Earth's crust and mantle at the time scale of seismic wave propagation evolves to that of a strong, elastic crust and weak, ductile upper mantle lithosphere at both earthquake cycle (EC, ???10?? to 103 yr) and glacio-isostatic adjustment (GIA, ???103 to 104 yr) time scales. Topography and gravity field correlations indicate that lithosphere isostatic adjustment (LIA) on ???106-107 yr time scales occurs with most lithospheric stress supported by an upper crust overlying a much weaker ductile subtrate. These comparisons suggest that the upper mantle lithosphere is weaker than the crust at all time scales longer than seismic. In contrast, the lower crust has a chameleon-like behavior, strong at EC and GIA time scales and weak for LIA and steady-state deformation processes. The lower crust might even take on a third identity in regions of rapid crustal extension or continental collision, where anomalously high temperatures may lead to large-scale ductile flow in a lower crustal layer that is locally weaker than the upper mantle. Modeling of lithospheric processes in active regions thus cannot use a one-size-fits-all prescription of rheological layering (relation between applied stress and deformation as a function of depth) but must be tailored to the time scale and tectonic setting of the process being investigated.
Additional publication details
Temporal evolution of continental lithospheric strength in actively deforming regions