Earth and Planetary Sciences ETDs

Publication Date



The Rio Grande rift in Colorado and New Mexico is one of the well-exposed and well-studied continental rifts in the world. Interest in the rift is driven not only by pure scientific intrigue, but also by a desire and a necessity to quantify earthquake hazards in New Mexico as well as to assess various water related issues throughout the state. These motivating topics have thus far led to the publication of two Geological Society of America Special Publication volumes in 1994 and 2013. This dissertation aims at building on the wealth of previous knowledge about the rift, and is composed of three separate chapters that focus on the structural evolution of the Rio Grande rift at several different time and spatial scales. At the largest scale, apatite (U-Th)/He thermochronologic data suggest synchronous extension along the entire length of the Rio Grande rift in Colorado and New Mexico from 20-10 Ma, which is important for understanding and evaluating possible driving mechanisms which are responsible for the rift. Previous tectonic and magmatic events in western North America were highly influential in the formation of the Rio Grande rift, and the new thermochronologic data suggest that its formation may have been closely linked to foundering and removal of the underlying Farallon Plate. A fundamental result of rift development at these scales is a concentration of strain is some regions of the rift. In these regions of maximum extension, fault networks display a geometry involving both high- and low-angle fault networks. These geometries are similar to the early stages in the development of metamorphic core complexes, and thus these regions in the rift link incipient extensional environments to highly extended terranes. At shorter time scales, heterogeneous strain accumulation may be governed in part by fluids in fault zones. As an example, along the western edge of the Albuquerque basin, travertine deposits are cut by extensional veins that record anomalously high strain rates during the Quaternary at this location. The fluids that precipitated the travertine and calcite in veins also contain a small component of deeply-derived fluids such that surface extension in this part of the rift is coupled with processes at deeper levels. Together, these studies suggest that removal of the Farallon slab beneath Colorado and New Mexico may have been a primary mechanism establishing extension in the Rio Grande rift, while continued extension is heterogeneous in time and space and provides an important link between surface processes and processes that operate at mid-crustal levels.

Degree Name

Earth and Planetary Sciences

Level of Degree


Department Name

Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences

First Advisor

Karlstrom, Karl

First Committee Member (Chair)

Crossey, Laura

Second Committee Member

Schmandt, Brandon

Third Committee Member

Axen, Gary

Fourth Committee Member

Kelley, Shari



Document Type