The ups and downs of North America: Evaluating the role of mantle dynamic topography since the Mesozoic

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The driving force for transient vertical motions of Earth's surface remains an outstanding question. A main difficulty lies in the uncertain role of the underlying mantle, especially during the geological past. Here I review previous studies on both observational constraints and physical mechanisms of North American topographic evolution since the Mesozoic. I first summarize the North American vertical motion history using proxies from structural geology, geochronology, sedimentary stratigraphy, and geomorphology, based on which I then discuss the published physical models. Overall, there is a progressive consensus on the contribution of mantle dynamic topography due to buoyancy structures associated with the past subduction. At the continental scale, a largely west-to-east migrating deformation pattern suggests an eastward translation of mantle dynamic effects, consistent with models involving an eastward subduction and sinking of former Farallon slabs since the Cretaceous. Among the existing models, the inverse model based on an adjoint algorithm and time-dependent data constraints provides the most extensive explanations for the temporal changes of North American topography since the Mesozoic. At regional scales, debates still exist on the predicted surface subsidence and uplift within both the western and eastern United States, where discrepancies are likely due to differences in model setup (e.g., mantle dynamic properties and boundary conditions) and the amount of time-dependent observational constraints. Toward the development of the next-generation predictive geodynamic models, new research directions may include (1) development of enhanced data assimilation capabilities, (2) exploration of multiscale and multiphysics processes, and (3) cross-disciplinary code coupling. Key Points North America experienced a west-to-east migrating long-wavelength dynamic subsidence since 100 Ma The main control on this dynamic topography is subduction of the Farallon plate since the Mesozoic Predictive models with data assimilation are promising in deciphering continental evolution.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1022-1049
Number of pages28
JournalReviews of Geophysics
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2015


  • Farallon subduction
  • North America
  • adjoint method
  • data assimilation
  • dynamic topography
  • seismic topography

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics


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