The role of partial melting and extensional strain rates in the development of metamorphic core complexes

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Orogenic collapse involves extension and thinning of thick and hot (partially molten) crust, leading to the formation of metamorphic core complexes (MCC) that are commonly cored by migmatite domes. Two-dimensional thermo-mechanical Ellipsis models evaluate the parameters that likely control the formation and evolution of MCC: the nature and geometry of the heterogeneity that localizes MCC, the presence/absence of a partially molten layer in the lower crust, and the rate of extension. When the localizing heterogeneity is a normal fault in the upper crust, the migmatite core remains in the footwall of the fault, resulting in an asymmetric MCC; if the localizing heterogeneity is point like region within the upper crust, the MCC remains symmetric throughout its development. Therefore, asymmetrically located migmatite domes likely reflect the dip of the original normal fault system that generated the MCC. Modeling of a severe viscosity drop owing to the presence of a partially molten layer, compared to a crust with no melt, demonstrates that the presence of melt slightly enhances upward advection of material and heat. Our experiments show that, when associated with boundary-driven extension, far-field horizontal extension provides space for the domes. Therefore, the buoyancy of migmatite cores contributes little to the outer envelope of metamorphic core complexes, although it may play a significant role in the internal dynamics of the partially molten layer. The presence of melt also favors heterogeneous bulk pure shear of the dome as opposed to the bulk simple shear, which dominates in melt-absent experiments. Melt presence affects the shape of P-T-t paths only slightly for material located near the top of the low-viscosity layer but leads to more complex flow paths for material inside the layer. The effect of extension rate is significant: at high extension rate (cm yr- 1 in the core complex region), partially molten crust crystallizes and cools along a high geothermal gradient (35 to 65 °C km- 1); material remains partially molten in the dome during ascent. At low strain rate (mm yr- 1 in the core complex region), the partially molten crust crystallizes at high pressure; this material is subsequently deformed in the solid-state along a cooler geothermal gradient (20 to 35 °C km- 1) during ascent. Therefore, the models predict distinct crystallization versus exhumation histories of migmatite cores as a function of extensional strain rates. The Shuswap metamorphic core complex (British Columbia, Canada) exemplifies a metamorphic core complex in which an asymmetric, detachment-controlled migmatite dome records rapid exhumation and cooling likely related to faster rates of extension. In contrast the Ruby Mountain-East Humboldt Ranges (Nevada, U.S.A.) exhibits characteristics associated with slower metamorphic core complexes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)135-144
Number of pages10
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Nov 15 2009

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work benefited greatly from the comments of O. Vanderheaghe, R. Weinberg, T. Spell, C. Wijns and two anonymous reviewers. Modeling was supported by AUSCOPE-NCRIS and Computational Infrastructure for Geodynamics software infrastructure. P. Rey acknowledges a visiting fellowship from the University of Minnesota. C. Teyssier and D.L. Whitney's research was partially supported by NSF grant EAR-0409776. C. Teyssier was also supported by grant 200021-117694 from the Swiss National Science Foundation.


  • Continental extension
  • Gneiss dome
  • Metamorphic core complex
  • Migmatite
  • Modeling
  • Partial melting


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