Block versus continuum deformation in the Western United States

Geoffrey King, David Oppenheimer, Falk Amelung

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


The relative role of block versus continuum deformation of continental lithosphere is a current subject of debate. Continuous deformation is suggested by distributed seismicity at continental plate margins and by cumulative seismic moment sums which yield slip estimates that are less than estimates from plate motion studies. In contrast, block models are favored by geologic studies of displacement in places like Asia. A problem in this debate is a lack of data from which unequivocal conclusions may be reached. In this paper we apply the techniques of study used in regions such as the Alpine-Himalayan belt to an area with a wealth of instrumental data-the Western United States. By comparing plate rates to seismic moment release rates and assuming a typical seismogenic layer thickness of 15 km it appears that since 1850 about 60% of the Pacific-North America motion across the plate boundary in California and Nevada has occurred seismically and 40% aseismically. The San Francisco Bay area shows similar partitioning between seismic and aseismic deformation, and it can be shown that within the seismogenic depth range aseismic deformation is concentrated near the surface and at depth. In some cases this deformation can be located on creeping surface faults, but elsewhere it is spread over a several kilometer wide zone adjacent to the fault. These superficial creeping deformation zones may be responsible for the palaeomagnetic rotations that have been ascribed elsewhere to the surface expression of continuum deformation in the lithosphere. Our results support the dominant role of non-continuum deformation processes with the implication that deformation localization by strain softening must occur in the lower crust and probably the upper mantle. Our conclusions apply only to the regions where the data are good, and even within the Western United States (i.e., the Basin and Range) deformation styles remain poorly resolved. Nonetheless, we maintain that block motion is the deformation style of choice for those continental regions where the data are best.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)55-64
Number of pages10
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Dec 1994
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


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