Although the majority of late Miocene to present Pacific-North America plate boundary strain has been accommodated by faults of the San Andreas and Gulf of California systems, growing evidence of dextral shear east of the San Andreas Fault indicates that a component of plate boundary deformation occurred in the lower Colorado River (LoCR) region. Large-scale tectonic reconstructions across the Gulf of California and Salton Trough (GCAST) region (Fig. 1), a ~500 km-wide zone of deformation that affected the western margin of North America, provide important constraints on the location, timing, style, and magnitude of crustal deformation in the LoCR region (Fig. 2). Characterizing Miocene to present deformation in the LoCR region is important to resolve the presence and kinematics of upper crustal structures that accommodated intracontinental strain and improves our understanding of the processes that promoted localized or diffuse strain during reorganization of the Pacific-North America plate boundary.
Map-view translations of crustal blocks influence the relative motions of adjacent blocks, an approach adhered to in global plate-circuit models (Atwater and Stock, 1998; 2013). Thus, a synthesis of the magnitude and timing of horizontal strain across a broad zone of distributed deformation can provide insight into processes of strain partitioning and potential kinematic links between adjacent structural domains. Furthermore, it can help prioritize and guide future work by identifying gaps in our understanding of plate boundary deformation and provide a degree of predictability for palinspastic reconstructions in areas where little information exists. At present, detailed geologic studies of crustal deformation related to the Pacific-North America plate boundary in the LoCR region are limited, leading to considerable uncertainty in the late Cenozoic tectonic evolution of the region. This uncertainty limits our understanding of how plate coupling evolves during the transition from a convergent margin to a transform margin.
In this paper, we utilize animated palinspastic fault-based reconstructions to evaluate the tectonic evolution of the LoCR region and to examine potential inconsistencies of the spatio-temporal evolution of the late Cenozoic Pacific-North America plate boundary. Based on revised palinspastic reconstructions and remaining inconsistencies, we hypothesize that (1) late Miocene transtensional faulting related to the Gulf of California shear zone and eastern California shear zone promoted tectonic subsidence in the LoCR region that permitted the subsequent southward lake spillover of the Colorado River and connection with the northern Gulf of California, (2) distributed Pliocene transtensional faulting likely occurred within the southern LoCR region, and is presently unaccounted for in most studies of geologic units related to the Pliocene Colorado River, and (3) the Chocolate Mountains anticlinorium can be reconstructed to a broadly linear, E-W-oriented structure at ca. 11 Ma, consistent with reconstruction of several other strain markers along the southern San Andreas Fault system.