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New Mexico Geology

2016, Volume 38, Number 2, pp. 24-49.

Latest Miocene-earliest Pliocene evolution of the ancestral Rio Grande at the EspaƱola-San Luis Basin boundary, northern New Mexico

Koning, D.J.; Aby, S.; Grauch, V.J.S; Zimmerer, M.J.,

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We use stratigraphic relations, paleoflow data, and 40Ar/39Ar dating to interpret net aggradation, punctuated by at least two minor incisional events, along part of the upper ancestral Rio Grande fluvial system between 5.5 and 4.5 Ma (in northern New Mexico). The studied fluvial deposits, which we informally call the Sandlin unit of the Santa Fe Group, overlie a structural high between the San Luis and Española Basins. The Sandlin unit was deposited by two merging, west- to southwest-flowing, ancestral Rio Grande tributaries respectively sourced in the central Taos Mountains and southern Taos Mountains-northeastern Picuris Mountains. The river confluence progressively shifted southwestward (downstream) with time, and the integrated river (ancestral Rio Grande) flowed southwards into the Española Basin to merge with the ancestral Rio Chama. Just prior to the end of the Miocene, this fluvial system was incised in the southern part of the study area (resulting in an approximately 4–7 km wide paleovalley), and had sufficient competency to transport cobbles and boulders. Sometime between emplacement of two basalt flows dated at 5.54± 0.38 Ma and 4.82±0.20 Ma (groundmass 40Ar/39Ar ages), this fluvial system deposited 10–12 m of sandier sediment (lower Sandlin subunit) preserved in the northern part of this paleovalley. The fluvial system widened between 4.82±0.20 and 4.50±0.07 Ma, depositing coarse sand and fine gravel up to 14 km north of the present-day Rio Grande. This 10–25 m-thick sediment package (upper Sandlin unit) buried earlier south- to southeast-trending paleovalleys (500–800 m wide) inferred from aeromagnetic data. Two brief incisional events are recognized. The first was caused by the 4.82±0.20 Ma basalt flow impounding south-flowing paleodrainages, and the second occurred shortly after emplacement of a 4.69±0.09 Ma basalt flow in the northern study area. Drivers responsible for Sandlin unit aggradation may include climate-modulated hydrologic factors (i.e., variable sediment supply and water discharge) or a reduction of eastward tilt rates of the southern San Luis Basin half graben. If regional in extent, these phenomena could also have promoted fluvial spillover that occurred in the southern Albuquerque Basin at about 6–5 Ma, resulting in southward expansion of the Rio Grande to southern New Mexico.

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