Geophysical study of the San Juan Mountains batholith complex, southwestern Colorado

By: , and 



One of the largest and most pronounced gravity lows over North America is over the rugged San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado (USA). The mountain range is coincident with the San Juan volcanic field (SJVF), the largest erosional remnant of a widespread mid-Cenozoic volcanic field that spanned much of the southern Rocky Mountains. A buried, low-density silicic batholith complex related to the volcanic field has been the accepted interpretation of the source of the gravity low since the 1970s. However, this interpretation was based on gravity data processed with standard techniques that are problematic in the SJVF region. The combination of high-relief topography, topography with low densities, and the use of a common reduction density of 2670 kg/m3produces spurious large-amplitude gravity lows that may distort the geophysical signature of deeper features such as a batholith complex. We applied an unconventional processing procedure that uses geologically appropriate densities for the uppermost crust and digital topography to mostly remove the effect of the low-density units that underlie the topography associated with the SJVF. This approach resulted in a gravity map that provides an improved representation of deeper sources, including reducing the amplitude of the anomaly attributed to a batholith complex. We also reinterpreted vintage seismic refraction data that indicate the presence of low-velocity zones under the SJVF. Assuming that the source of the gravity low on the improved gravity anomaly map is the same as the source of the low seismic velocities, integrated modeling corroborates the interpretation of a batholith complex and then defines the dimensions and overall density contrast of the complex. Models show that the thickness of the batholith complex varies laterally to a significant degree, with the greatest thickness (∼20 km) under the western SJVF, and lesser thicknesses (<10 km) under the eastern SJVF. The largest group of nested calderas on the surface of the SJVF, the central caldera cluster, is not correlated with the thickest part of the batholith complex. This result is consistent with petrologic interpretations from recent studies that the batholith complex continued to be modified after cessation of volcanism and therefore is not necessarily representative of synvolcanic magma chambers. The total volume of the batholith complex is estimated to be 82,000–130,000 km3. The formation of such a large felsic batholith complex would inevitably involve production of a considerably greater volume of residuum, which could be present in the lower crust or uppermost mantle. The interpreted vertically averaged density contrast (–60 to –110 kg/m3), density (2590–2640 kg/m3), and seismic expression of the batholith complex are consistent with results of geophysical studies of other large batholiths in the western United States.

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Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Geophysical study of the San Juan Mountains batholith complex, southwestern Colorado
Series title Geosphere
DOI 10.1130/GES00723.1
Volume 8
Issue 3
Year Published 2012
Language English
Publisher Geological Society of America
Contributing office(s) Crustal Geophysics and Geochemistry Science Center
Description 16 p.
First page 669
Last page 684
Country United States
State Colorado
Other Geospatial San Juan Mountains