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How did the Puna plateau form?

Along the margins of the southern Puna plateau, vigorous Pliocene deformation of
the upper crust is documented by deposition of syntectonic conglomerates, as well
as folding and faulting of Mio-Pliocene deposits. This surficial expression of
tectonic activity is broadly synchronous along the plateau margin throughout the
study area encompassed by this dissertation (~2826.5S). In contrast to the
plateau margins, relatively minor deformation is observed within the plateau after
10 Ma, although abundant evidence exists for surface uplift on the order of 2 km
between 106 Ma (Hoke and Garzione, 2008). Most data regarding plateau uplift
pertain to the Altiplano; substantially less information exists regarding the uplift of
the Puna. Therefore much of the following discussion is comparative. The Puna
and Altiplano share many similarities, including a dramatic Mio-Pliocene uplift
history; however, their paths to the present state differed (cf. Allmendinger et al.,
1997). Several processes have been implicated in formation of the Puna-Altiplano
plateau. These processes, by no means mutually exclusive, have been put forward
as general models to explain the genesis of this enigmatic geologic province. The
mechanics of building and supporting a vast high altitude plateau are poorly
understood and simple models are useful for conceptualizing relevant processes.
Regarding the southern Puna, Allmendinger (1986) summarized potential plateau
uplift mechanisms (Figure 1.6). Observations of upper crustal fault geometries in
this study, favor a structural model of distributed shortening leading to crustal
thickening rather than underthrusting of the stable craton beneath the orogenic
belt.
Comprehensive models for deformation within the Central Andes and uplift of the
Puna-Altiplano plateau rely on a combination of crustal thickening and lithospheric
thinning (Isacks, 1988). A majority of crustal thickening (7090%) is attributed to
shortening, leaving a minor role for magmatic addition in supporting the expansive
topography of the plateau (Allmendinger et al., 1997). Isacks (1988) proposed a
twostage model for crustal thickening, the first stage dominated by distributed
shortening and the second characterized by underthrusting of the foreland beneath
the plateau by shortening of the ductile lower crust. This two-stage model is
attractive because it produces recent uplift of a low relief, internally drained plateau
with minor surface deformation of the plateau interior. This two-stage model has
been shown to be viable for the Altiplano (Gubbels et al., 1993), but unlikely for the
Puna, which exhibits little evidence of underthrusting (Allmendinger and Gubbels,
1996).
Recent geophysical data also suggest that the two-stage model, which relies on
underthrusting of the craton beneath the plateau, is viable for the Altiplano. Of
particular interest is a regionally extensive, rheologically weak layer observed as a

thin horizon at ~20 km depth below the Altiplano (Chmielowski et al., 1999; Beck
and Zandt, 2002; Oncken et al., 2003). This weak mid-crustal layer may serve to
decouple the upper and lower crust, effectively permitting underthrusting from the
east and geodynamically isolating the brittle upper crust. Beck and Zandt (2002)
indicate that the crust underlying high topography is thick and has a felsic to
intermediate bulk composition. They further suggest that the lower crust is ductile,
and that underthrusting from the east has penetrated beneath the plateau margin,
but does not penetrate beneath the entire Altiplano. It is also suggested that dense
sub-crustal lithosphere is delaminating beneath the Altiplano, thereby reducing
lithospheric thickness, accommodating inflow of upper and mid-crustal material
beneath the plateau and resulting in the felsification of continental crust (Beck
and Zandt, 2002).