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Volcanoes and Earthquakes of the Rio Grande Rift,

Expecting the Unexpected along the Rio Grande

A Compiled Research Report
By Justin C. Gaenzle

Table of Contents

Abstract: Page 1

Section One: A Divergent Boundary: Page 1-2

Section Two: Volcanoes on the Rift: Page 2-3

Section Three: Earthquakes along the Rift: Page 3-5

Overview: Page 5

Sources: Page 6

Maps of the Rio Grande Rift: Page 7


The Rio Grande rift a north to south trending zone and an east to west oriented

extension. The extension is caused by the Colorado Plateau pulling slowly away from
the High Plains. This area of the Earth's crust is being stretched and thinned. The earth

is also constantly rebuilding within this process. Area affected by this extension is

Colorado, New Mexico, and West Texas. The Rio Grande rift has caused the landscape

to change over time and the course of the Rio Grande River its self is controlled by the

rift. Rio Grande rift began around 36 - 29 million year ago. Volcanic activity is prominent

through out the rift and also with the shifting of the Earth come earthquakes. These

basins are in the form of half graben which are tilted strongly toward the East and the

West.This all depending on the location of the master fault system on the margins of

each basin. There is about 15,000 feet of rift sediment that has accumulated along the

basins of the Rio Grande rift. This has caused the formation of many important aquifers

that supply water to some of the largest cities within these states.

Section One: A Divergent Boundary

A rift is created when the Earths lithosphere (the strong "skin" layer at the surface)

stretches and thins. Rifts typically have an elongated valley bounded by faults and a thin

crust. The Rio Grande Rift began forming between 35 and 29 million years ago when

Earths lithosphere began to spread apart, triggering volcanism (volcanic activity) in the

region. It stretches from the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, to at least Leadville, Colorado

(and probably continues further north). Continental rifts like the Rio Grande form basins

(topographic depressions) that fill with sediments over millions of years. In Albuquerque,

New Mexico, the basin sediments are three miles thick. The Rio Grande Rift continues

to widen very slowly today. (

In plate tectonics, a divergent boundary or divergent plate boundary (also known as

a constructive boundary or an extensional boundary) is a linear feature that exists

between two tectonic plates that are moving away from each other. Divergent

boundaries within contents initially produce rift which eventually become rift valleys.

Most active divergent plate boundaries occur between oceanic plates and exist as mid-

oceanic ridge. Divergent boundaries also form volcanic islands which occur when the
plates move apart to produce gaps which molten lava rises to fill.


Section Two: Volcanoes on the Rift

Potrillo Volcanic Field:

The Potrillo volcanic field is located southwest of Las Cruces in extreme southern

New Mexico, and extends across the border into Mexico. This area consists of several

hundred lava flows, cinder cones, and Maar craters that range in age from 1.2 million

years to 16,000 years old. Kilbourne Hole, a depression 1.5 miles across this area

contains beautiful gem grade peridot. Aden crater sits on top of a shield volcano and at

one time contained a lake of lava.


Albuquerque Basin:

Albuquerque Basin contains a series of volcanic fields including the San Felipe,

Albuquerque, Wind Mesa, and Cat Hills fields. Some are several million years old, but

the Albuquerque volcanoes were active as recently as 156,000 years ago, and the Cat

Hills are thought to be as young as 90,000 years old. These features include cinder

cones, spatter cones, and fluid lava flows. Most of the rocks are of basaltic composition.

Many of the features in the Albuquerque-Los Lunas area erupted along north-south

trending fissures associated with major faults of the Rio Grande rift. The Albuquerque

volcanoes include five main vents visible from Albuquerque as small cones on the

western skyline, which fall along a fissure six miles long.


Jemez Mountains:

The Jemez Mountains around Los Alamos, was initially formed by repeated small

volcanic eruptions over the spectrum 15 million years. However, most of the rocks

exposed in the many radial canyons around the central crater were formed by two very

large rhyolitic eruption cycles that took place 1.6 to 1.2 million years ago. These

eruptions began with immensely powerful explosive eruptions that created a pumice
and ash. This ash has fallen across much of New Mexico and as far as Lubbock, Texas.

The eruptions where followed by a series of pyroclastic flows composed of quick moving

clouds of superheated gas, pumice, ash, and crystals. This formed layers of welded tuff

hundreds of feet thick, called the Bandelier Tuff. Following the end of the last main

eruption the top of the mountain collapsed forming a caldera that is approximately 13

miles across. A ring of smaller domes later developed on the margins of the caldera, in

which creating the landscape we see today.


Taos Plateau:

This is the largest and very diverse volcanic field within the rift. It has a range of

different compositions of magma have erupted in this field. These compositions have

resulted in basaltic, andesitic, dacitic, and rhyolitic type rocks. There is also large

rounded mountains west of Taos. Which are individual volcanoes that are between 1

and 6 million years old. San Antonio Mountain and Ute Mountain are great examples of

lava domes that where formed from repeated eruptions of viscous lava. La Seguita

Peaks are shield volcanoes and the small cinder cones are found in places such as the

gorge in the Wild Rivers Recreation Area. The flat floor of the Taos Plateau is made of

thin flood basalts that have spreaded out over many miles. Sequences of these flows

have included the Servilleta Basalt. They have exposed the walls of the Taos Gorge of

the Rio Grande.


Section Three: Earthquakes along the Rift

Many of the worlds greatest natural disasters have been due to earthquakes.

Earthquakes like hurricanes, can generate severe effects over large areas. However,

unlike hurricanes, earthquakes always occur without or little warning. Earthquakes as

an hazard are classified in two categories: Primary hazards, this include the ground

shaking, surface fault rupture, and uplift and/or subsidence. Secondary effects are

liquefaction, landslides, and tsunamis. Along the Rio Grande Rift, ground shaking,
liquefaction, surface fault rupture, and earthquake induced landslides which are some of

the most important hazards we struggle with.


When the ground begins to shake is the result of seismic waves reaching the earths

surface. This is where the most damaging of all earthquake hazards due to it having far

reaching effects. Ground shaking at any given location are a function of earthquake size

and rupture process and can give the distance from the causative fault. Attenuating

properties along the travel path of seismic waves will be near surface geological

conditions beneath the site or sites. Strong ground shaking can occur throughout the

state but will have a concentrated within the Rio Grande rift due to it be the location of

the faults. (

Also, it has been observed that locations on the hanging wall of dipping faults, as is

the case where rift-bounding faults dip beneath the Rio Grande Valley, structure situated

along an active fault is subject to damage in a future earthquake. Within the United

States many of the states require that critical and important facilities cannot be built

across active fault zones. New Mexico allows structures to be built across known active

faults. Where earthquakes induced landslides due to the sheering mountain slopes and

canyon walls along the Rio Grande rift. This has been the cause of many injuries and a

lot of property damage. (

When water saturated sandy and silt like soil are subjected to earthquakes

liquefaction can occur. The shaking will cause the soil to realign its particles by

decreasing soil strength resulting in deformation. In some cases, soil particles can

become suspended in ground water this reaction allows sand or mud volcanoes to from.

Lateral spreading is the result of liquefaction on sloping ground or near an escarpment

or cliff, causing a permanent ground displacement. People that concern with respect to

liquefaction are concentrated along the Rio Grande due to the presence of a high water

table and water heavy soils. (


This paper is about the Rio Grande Rift along with questions the possibly be asked.

Within the paper topic classified into sections where listed. Section One: A Divergent

Boundary, in this section the question of what is a Divergent Boundary and how is it

formed have been answered. In Section Two: Volcanoes on the Rift, all the volcanoes

that concern the Rio Grande Rift have been listed along with information about them.

Finally Section Three: Earthquakes along the Rift, this area was longer than the other.

This is due to the fact of wanting the reader to encompass the full embodiment of

earthquakes and the fact of them being along the Rio Grande Rift.


Earth Floor: Plate Tectonics. (n.d.). Retrieved March 9, 2017, from
Lite Geology. Retrieved March 9, 2017, from

New Mexico Earth Matters. 2009. Retrieved March 9, 2017, from

Rio Grande Rift FAQ. (n.d.). Retrieved March 9, 2017, from
Rio Grande Rift volcano fields

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