The Rio Grande rift in central New Mexico provides an excellent location to study the interaction between high-angle and low-angle (15°–35°) normal faults during crustal extension. Here we evaluate the relative importance of low-angle normal faults (LANFs) in the Albuquerque basin of central New Mexico with goals of testing two conflicting models of rift geometry and producing evolutionary models for the northern and southern parts of the basin. Using physiographic relationships, field observations, structural data analysis, and thermal history modeling, we document two brittle LANF systems on salients in adjacent opposite-polarity half-grabens. These fault systems were both active ca. 20–10 Ma and are locations of maximum fault slip as indicated by thickness of sedimentary fill in adjacent sub-basins and highest elevation rift flanks. Average fault dip increases basinward, and outbound faults were abandoned while intrabasinal faults cut Quaternary units, supporting an evolutionary model where master normal faults initiated at a higher dip, were shallowed by isostatic footwall uplift in regions of highest slip, and became inactive while younger normal faults emerged basinward. These geometrical and kinematic observations are predicted by the rolling-hinge model for the formation of LANFs. This mechanism has been widely applied to core complexes in highly extended terranes (e.g., Basin and Range), regions of orogenic collapse, and mid-ocean ridges, and it is shown here to also be applicable to narrow continental rifts of modest (∼35%) extension. Similarities to core complexes include a physiographic expression of domal uplifts, evolution of a master detachment horizon that initiated as a breakaway, and isostatically rotated low-angle normal faults. Although the degree of extension was too low to juxtapose ductile footwall rocks against brittle hanging-wall rocks, if extension had progressed in the Albuquerque basin, eventually a mature metamorphic core complex would have formed, similar to those preserved in the adjacent Basin and Range Province. The Rio Grande rift, therefore, provides a snapshot of the embryonic stages of core complex formation, bridging the gap between mature core complexes and incipient extensional environments.
- Received 24 July 2014.
- Revision received 12 December 2014.
- Accepted 25 January 2015.
- © 2015 Geological Society of America