Refolding of thin-skinned thrust sheets by active basement-involved thrust faults in the Eastern Precordillera of western Argentina
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Devastating earthquakes like the 1944 San Juan earthquake reflect active deformation in western Argentina. Although the earthquake caused considerable damage to San Juan, the source of the earthquake remains uncertain. Potential source faults occur in the thin-skinned fold-and-thrust belt Precordillera province and in the thick-skinned Sierras Pampeanas province, to the west and east, respectively of Sierra de Villicum, a thrust sheet in the eastern Precordillera northwest of San Juan. Sierra de Villicum is a west-vergent thrust sheet bound on the northwest by the Villicum thrust, which juxtaposes a southeast dipping panel of Cambro-Ordovician and Neogene strata in the hanging wall with Neogene red beds in the footwall. A series of Late Pleistocene fluvial terraces developed across the Villicum thrust show no evidence of active fold or fault deformation. Terraces are deformed by active folds and faults in the middle of the southeastern flank of the Sierra de Villicum thrust sheet. A southeast-facing, southwest-plunging monocline characterizes the Neogene red beds in the region of active folding. Co- and post-seismic surface rupture along roughly 6 km of the La Laja fault in 1944 occurred in the limb of the monocline. Evidence that surface deformation in the 1944 earthquake was dominated by folding includes terrace´s fold geometry, which is consistent with kink-band models for fold growth, and bedding-fault relationships that indicate that the La Laja fault is a flexural slip fault. A blind basement reverse fault model for the earthquake source and for active deformation reconciles the zone of terrace deformation, coseismic surface rupture on the La Laja fault, refolding of the Villicum thrust sheet, a basement arch between the Precordillera and eastern Precordillera, and microseismicity that extends northwestward from a depth of ~5 km beneath Sierra de Villicum to ~35 km depth. Maximum horizontal shortening rate is estimated to be ~3.0 mmyr-1 from the terrace fold model and correlation of the terraces with dated terraces located to the southwest of the study area. Basement rocks beneath Cerro Salinas, another eastern Precordillera thrust sheet to the southwest, are also characterized by an east-facing monoclinal geometry, which suggests that blind thrust faulting on east-vergent basement faults represents a significant, underappreciated seismic hazard in western Argentina.
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