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GMEG - Geology, Minerals, Energy, & Geophysics Science Center

Geologic framework of the Northern Great Basin

 

 

 

Issue

The northern Great Basin has a long and complex tectonic history, from Paleozoic and Mesozoic shortening to major mid-Tertiary volcanism and the widespread Cenozoic normal faulting that formed its modern topography. The most important aspect of this history with respect to present-day natural resources and geologic hazards is the Cenozoic volcanism and extensional faulting, which formed the modern sedimentary basins and active faults, played a key role in the formation of mineral deposits, and in many places (but not everywhere) severely disrupted older rocks and structures. For example, areas of significant recent or active faulting may be more promising for geothermal resources and more likely to host active faults, but less favorable for finding pre-extensional mineral deposits that formed near the surface and are easily eroded or buried during later deformation. Understanding the timing and style of Cenozoic deformation and volcanic activity across the northern Basin and Range, even in a general fashion, would help us to predict which areas are likely to be characterized by certain geologic structures—e.g., active vs. inactive faults, or a certain style of volcanic activity—and thereby help future resource and hazard assessments more effectively focus their time and resources into favorable areas.

Relevance and Impact

The Great Basin is rich in mineral and energy (primarily geothermal) resources, nearly all of which are located on Federal land open to exploration (mostly BLM and US Forest Service). Nevada alone is the world’s 4th leading gold-producer, and mines in the northern Great Basin are major producers of barite, silver, and copper. The region is being actively explored for lithium and rare-earth elements, the supply of which is the focus of nine different bills currently pending (July2011) in the U.S. House and Senate. High heat flow and active faults make the region rich in potential geothermal resources—Nevada has ~450 megawatts of installed capacity and is being intensely explored for more— and the faults themselves pose a hazard to lives and property, with the most recent damaging earthquake (magnitude 6.0) occurring in 2008 near Wells, Nevada.

A refined understanding of the geology and tectonic history of the north-central Great Basin will contribute to several long-term USGS goals, including "Energy and Minerals for America's Future,” specifically Strategic Goal 1 “Natural Resource Security for the Future,” which states that “to improve the accuracy of assessments, particularly the potential for undiscovered resources, a comprehensive understanding of the earth system in which resources occur is essential (Circular 1309, p. 25), and "A National Hazards, Risk, and Resilience Assessment Program,” specifically Area 3 (“Characterizing and Assessing Hazards”)—“Assessing where hazards are likely to occur and how large they are likely to be,” (Circular 1309, p. 33), and Strategic Goal 4 “Management of DOI, Federal, and Other Lands” (Circular 1309, p. 26)—the Federal government owns almost 90% of Nevada and western Utah, including over two dozen Wilderness or Wilderness Study Areas and one National Park.

   

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