Quaternary basaltic volcanic fields of the American Southwest

Greg A. Valentine, Michael H. Ort, Joaquín A. Cortés

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


The southwestern United States contains numerous monogenetic basaltic volcanoes distributed in intraplate volcanic fields. We review, on a regional scale, our current understanding of the Quaternary basalts with a focus on aspects pertinent to hazard assessment, such as physical volcanology and geochronology, while also summarizing the several petrogenetic conceptual models that have been proposed for the range of local tectonic settings in the region. We count 2229 volcanoes in 37 volcanic fields (including the Pinacate volcanic field, which is mostly in northern Sonora, Mexico). Volcanic landforms are dominantly scoria cones and ramparts with attendant lava fields that have a spectrum of 'a'a and blocky to pahoehoe morphologies, while a small percentage of the volcanoes are maars and tuff cones. Explosive eruption styles that were driven mainly by magmatic volatiles, where they have been studied in detail, included Hawaiian, Strombolian, violent Strombolian, and sub-Plinian activity. The latter two have resulted in substantial fallout deposits that can be traced tens of kilometers from source vents. Phreatomagmatic styles have produced pyroclastic current (mainly pyroclastic surges), ballistic, and fallout deposits. These eruption styles pose hazards to humans when they occur in populated areas and to air travel and regional infrastructure even in sparsely populated areas. All but one of the major volcanic fields (fields that contain ~100 or more Quaternary volcanoes) together form a northwest-southeast-trending band, which we suggest may reflect an influence of plate-boundary-related shearing on melt segregation in the upper mantle along with other factors; this view is consistent with recent global positioning system (GPS) and structural geologic data indicating the influence of dextral motion along the North America-Pacific plate boundary deep inside the Southwest. Of the 2229 Quaternary volcanoes identified, ~548 (25%) have been dated, and only ~15% have been dated with methods such as 40Ar/39Ar and cosmogenic surface exposure methods that are considered optimal for young basalts. Acknowledging the large uncertainty due to the poor geochronological data coverage, we use a simple Poisson model to provide a first-order estimate of recurrence rates of monogenetic volcanoes on the scale of the region as a whole; recurrence rates using our compiled age data set range from 3.74 x 10-4 yr-1 to 8.63 x 10-4 yr-1. These values are only based on dated and mapped volcanoes, respectively, and do not account for undated and buried volcanoes or other uncertainties in the volcano count. The time between monogenetic eruptions in the Southwest is similar to the repose times of some polygenetic volcanoes, which suggests that the regional hazard is potentially commensurate with the hazard from a reawakening stratovolcano such as those in the Cascade Range. Notable in our review is that only a few volcanoes have been the subject of physical volcanological characterization, interpretation, and detailed petrologic study that may elucidate factors such as magma generation, ascent (including time scales), and controls on eruption style.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2144-2171
Number of pages28
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geology
  • Stratigraphy


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