Evidence of Small-Volume Igneous Diapirism in the Shallow Crust of the Colorado Plateau, San Rafael Desert, Utah

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Magma is transported through Earth's solid crust by two different processes, diking and diapirism, although other mechanisms, such as porous and channeled flow, can transport melt through partially molten crustal areas. Dikes are ubiquitous indicators of the transport of magma in the shallow crust by brittle fracture, and there is ample geological and geophysical evidence supporting diking as a magma-ascent mechanism through the crust. On the other hand, igneous diapirism, involving magma ascent by gravitational instability and requiring viscous or plastic flow of country rock (“hot Stokes” diapirs), is often invoked as a magma-transport mechanism restricted to the ductile upper mantle or lower crust. However, unequivocal geological field evidence for igneous diapirism has proven elusive and has been a matter of considerable debate. We report geological and geophysical evidence showing that Pliocene sills emplaced in the upper levels of brittle continental crust of the Colorado Plateau in the San Rafael subvolcanic field (Utah) became gravitationally unstable by mechanically altering the overlying sedimentary rocks. These sills grew into structures that we recognize as domes and plugs at the current level of exposure. Some of these plugs continued to transport magma to shallower levels of the continental crust and eventually acted as conduits feeding volcanic eruptions. Our geological and geophysical findings indicate that gravitational instability is a viable mechanism for the initiation of magma ascent in the upper continental crust for small volumes of basaltic magma under specific conditions.

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Lithosphere, v. 1, no. 6, p. 328-336