Continental and oceanic crustal structure of the Pampean flat slab region, western Argentina, using receiver function analysis: New high-resolution results

Christine R. Gans, Susan L. Beck, George Zandt, Hersh Gilbert, Patricia Alvarado, Megan Anderson, Lepolt Linkimer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

121 Scopus citations


The Pampean flat slab of central Chile and Argentina (30°-32°S) has strongly influenced Cenozoic tectonics in western Argentina, which contains both the thick-skinned, basement-cored uplifts of the Sierras Pampeanas and the thin-skinned Andean Precordillera fold and thrust belt. In this region of South America, the Nazca Plate is subducting nearly horizontally beneath the South American Plate at ∼100km depth. To gain a better understanding of the deeper structure of this region, including the transition from flat to 'normal' subduction to the south, three IRIS-PASSCAL arrays of broad-band seismic stations have been deployed in central Argentina. Using the dense SIEMBRA array, combined with the broader CHARGE and ESP arrays, the flat slab is imaged for the first time in 3-D detail using receiver function (RF) analysis. A distinct pair of RF arrivals consisting of a negative pulse that marks the top of the oceanic crust, followed by a positive pulse, which indicates the base of the oceanic crust, can be used to map the slab's structure. Depths to Moho and oceanic crustal thicknesses estimated from RF results provide new, more detailed regional maps. An improved depth to continental Moho map shows depths of more than 70km in the main Cordillera and ∼50km in the western Sierras Pampeanas, that shallow to ∼35km in the eastern Sierras Pampeanas. Depth to Moho contours roughly follow terrane boundaries. Offshore, the hotspot seamount chain of the Juan Fernández Ridge (JFR) is thought to create overthickened oceanic crust, providing a mechanism for flat slab subduction. By comparing synthetic RFs, based on various structures, to the observed RF signal we determine that the thickness of the oceanic crust at the top of the slab averages at least ∼13-19km, supporting the idea of a moderately overthickened crust to provide the additional buoyancy for the slab to remain flat. The overthickened region is broader than the area directly aligned with the path of the JFR, however, and indicates, along with the slab earthquake locations, that the flat slab area is wider than the JFR volcanic chain observed in the offshore bathymetry. Further, RFs indicate that the subducted oceanic crust in the region directly along the path of the subducted ridge is broken by trench-parallel faults. One explanation for these faults is that they are older structures within the oceanic crust that were created when the slab subducted. Alternatively, it is possible that faults formed recently from tectonic underplating caused by increased interplate coupling in the flat slab region.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)45-58
Number of pages14
JournalGeophysical Journal International
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 2011


  • Body waves
  • Continental margins: convergent
  • Crustal structure
  • Dynamics of lithosphere and mantle
  • Seismicity and tectonics
  • South America

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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