Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder

Craig H. Jones

Research Interests

Jones' research focus on the deformation of continents with a special interest in the western United States.

Teaching Profile

Prof. Jones regularly teaches field geophysics (GEOL4714/5714), a tectonics field seminar (GEOL4717/5717), and less frequently a tectonics class (GEOL5690). He also teaches at the lower division level (most recently, a first-year seminar on how mountains affected US history).

Current Research

The Western U.S.: Overview

The West is one of the broadest elevated areas on Earth. If you took intro geology, you might think this was because everything in the West was shortened (and so the crust thickened) from about 200 to 50 million years ago, and then this was modified as the thick crust thinned out under its own weight in places like the Basin and Range. Were this the case, there would be little to do. But it is more complex.

Origins of the Sierra Nevada

I've spent much of my career trying to understand the Sierra Nevada. This range's crust was built by the end of the Cretaceous, more than 65 million years ago, yet there are strong arguments that the elevation of the range is young (though this is disputed). This uplift is accompanied by normal faulting on the east side of the Sierra and occured behind a transform plate boundary. I've deployed seismometers in the range many times (1988,1993,1994, 1997, 2005-2007) to try and constrain the earth structure supporting these elevations. Results from these experiments suggests the high Sierra is supported in part by lower density crust and in part by sitting over low density mantle.

That the mantle is low wavespeed under the high Sierra opens the question of just what has happened under the Sierra. A number of observations suggest that an old high density and high wavespeed mafic lower crust has fallen off the bottom of the Sierra, but where is it now? A good candidate is a high wavespeed body (the Isabella anomaly) in the mantle under the southwestern part of the range and the adjoining San Joaquin Valley, but the physical mechanism by which this material moved from under the eastern Sierra to its present position is poorly understood.

Ongoing seismological work seeks to resolve one of the oldest seismological observations in the Sierra and in the process gain some constraints on how material might be falling away from the range. We are trying to reproduce the seismic waveforms recorded on the east side of the Sierra from earthquakes to the west; these seismic arrivals are anomalously late, yet existing seismological models do not predict such arrivals. Hopefully this work will clarify just what is happening near the Moho under the westernmost Sierra.

Having spent many years in the Sierra and been asked many times why study it, I've written a book, The Mountains that Remade America published by UC Press in the fall of 2017.

Raising the Rockies and High Plains

The wide extent of the American Cordillera is unexpected for an orogen that was not created by continental collision. The earliest uplifts of modern terrain dated to the end of the Cretaceous when some mountains began to rise out of the seaway and coastal plain that existed at the time. This event, the Laramide Orogeny, has long been attributed to a subducting plate scraping the bottom of North America at this time, but the best physical mechanism--a strong coupling of the two plates--makes predictions at odds with observations. Some years ago we suggested an alternative where subsidence of the Colorado and Wyoming region was key in localizing high stresses so far from the continent's edge. Some ongoing work explores whether such a process will reproduce the observed stresses and early strains in the Rockies.

But at a broader scale, the Rockies are just the deformed part of a broad uplift that includes the High Plains of Wyoming, Colorado, western Kansas, and New Mexico. The absence of deformation of the High Plains limits the processes that could be active. We have suggested that this reflects a novel process where originally garnet-rich lower crust has been altered by water rising through the lithosphere to lower density minerals. If true, this challenges our usual notions of the fate of water rising off a subducting plate and adds a new mechanism to those already known to create high topography. Ongoing work is looking to quantify the amount of topography unaccounted for by any other process (such as sedimentation); longer term goals include finding ways of testing this hypothesis seismically and (in collaboration with colleagues in Geological Sciences) determining the age and extent of any hydration event.



Then University of Arizona graduate student Andy Frassetto writes field notes as SNEP backcountry station 65 is removed from near Nelson Lake in Yosemite National Park in late summer 2007. Photo credit: Craig Jones/CIRES

Animation illustrating idea of how elevations of the Plains and Rockies might have originated from an infusion of water.

Honors and Awards

  • Best Publication Award, GSA Structural Geology and Tectonics Division, 2018

View Publications

  • Ryan, J; Frassetto, AM; Hurd, O; Jones, CH; Unruh, J; Zandt, G; Gilbert, H; Owens, TJ. (Feb 2020). Unusually deep earthquakes in the central Sierra Nevada (California, USA): Foundering ultramafic lithosphere?. GEOSPHERE , 16(1). 10.1130/GES02158.1
  • Bernardino, MV; Jones, CH; Levandowski, W; Bastow, I; Owens, TJ; Gilbert, H. (DEC 2019). A multicomponent Isabella anomaly: Resolving the physical state of the Sierra Nevada upper mantle from Vp/Ns anisotropy tomography. GEOSPHERE, 15(6), 2018-2042. 10.1130/GES02093.1
  • Levandowski, W, CH Jones, LA Butcher and KH Mahan. (JUN 2018). Lithospheric density models reveal evidence for Cenozoic uplift of the Colorado Plateau and Great Plains by lower-crustal hydration. GEOSPHERE, 14(3), 1150-1164. 10.1130/GES01619.1
  • Levandowski, W and CH Jones. (NOV 2015). Linking Sierra Nevada, California, uplift to subsidence of the Tulare basin using a seismically derived density model. TECTONICS, 34(11), 2349-2358. 10.1002/2015TC003824
  • Molnar, P, PC England and CH Jones. (MAR 2015). Mantle dynamics, isostasy, and the support of high terrain. JOURNAL OF GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH-SOLID EARTH, 120(3), 1932-1957. 10.1002/2014JB011724
  • Jones, CH, KH Mahan, LA Butcher, WB Levandowski and GL Farmer. (APR 2015). Continental uplift through crustal hydration. GEOLOGY, 43(4), 355-358. 10.1130/G36509.1
  • Unruh, J, E Hauksson and CH Jones. (FEB 2014). Internal deformation of the southern Sierra Nevada microplate associated with foundering lower lithosphere, California. GEOSPHERE, 10(1), 107-128. 10.1130/GES00936.1
  • Jones, CH, H Reeg, G Zandt, H Gilbert, TJ Owens and J Stachnik. (JUN 2014). P-wave tomography of potential convective downwellings and their source regions, Sierra Nevada, California. GEOSPHERE, 10(3), 505-533. 10.1130/GES00961.1
  • Levandowski, W, CH Jones, WS Shen, MH Ritzwoller and V Schulte-Pelkum. (MAR 2014). Origins of topography in the western US: Mapping crustal and upper mantle density variations using a uniform seismic velocity model. JOURNAL OF GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH-SOLID EARTH, 119(3), 2375-2396. 10.1002/2013JB010607
  • Levandowski, W, CH Jones, H Reeg, A Frassetto, H Gilbert, G Zandt and TJ Owens. (DEC 2013). Seismological estimates of means of isostatic support of the Sierra Nevada. GEOSPHERE, 9(6), 1552-1561. 10.1130/GES00905.1
  • Farmer, GL, AF Glazner, WT Kortemeier, MA Cosca, CH Jones, JE Moore and RA Schweickert. (OCT 2013). Mantle lithosphere as a source of postsubduction magmatism, northern Sierra Nevada, California. GEOSPHERE, 9(5), 1102-1124. 10.1130/GES00885.1
  • Gilbert, H, Y Yang, DW Forsyth, CH Jones, TJ Owens, G Zandt and JC Stachnik. (DEC 2012). Imaging lithospheric foundering in the structure of the Sierra Nevada. GEOSPHERE, 8(6), 1310-1330. 10.1130/GES00790.1
  • Schulte-Pelkum, V, G Biasi, A Sheehan and C Jones. (SEP 2011). Differential motion between upper crust and lithospheric mantle in the central Basin and Range. NATURE GEOSCIENCE, 4(9), 619-623. 10.1038/ngeo1229
  • Frassetto, AM, G Zandt, H Gilbert, TJ Owens and CH Jones. (AUG 2011). Structure of the Sierra Nevada from receiver functions and implications for lithospheric foundering. GEOSPHERE, 7(4), 898-921. 10.1130/GES00570.1
  • Yang, YJ, MH Ritzwoller and CH Jones. (19-Feb 2011). Crustal structure determined from ambient noise tomography near the magmatic centers of the Coso region, southeastern California. GEOCHEMISTRY GEOPHYSICS GEOSYSTEMS, 12. 10.1029/2010GC003362
  • Jones, CH, GL Farmer, B Sageman and SJ Zhong. (FEB 2011). Hydrodynamic mechanism for the Laramide orogeny. GEOSPHERE, 7(1), 183-201. 10.1130/GES00575.1
  • Frassetto, A, G Zandt, H Gilbert, TJ Owens and CH Jones. (JUL 2010). Improved imaging with phase-weighted common conversion point stacks of receiver functions. GEOPHYSICAL JOURNAL INTERNATIONAL, 182(1), 368-374. 10.1111/j.1365-246X.2010.04617.x
  • Mueller, K, G Kier, T Rockwell and CH Jones. (9-Sep 2009). Quaternary rift flank uplift of the Peninsular Ranges in Baja and southern California by removal of mantle lithosphere. TECTONICS, 28. 10.1029/2007TC002227
  • Tetreault, J, CH Jones, E Erslev, S Larson, M Hudson and S Holdaway. (JUL-AUG 2008). Paleomagnetic and structural evidence for oblique slip in a fault-related fold, Grayback monocline, Colorado. GEOLOGICAL SOCIETY OF AMERICA BULLETIN, 120(8-Jul), 877-892. 10.1130/B26178.1
  • Boyd, OS, MK Savage, AF Sheehan and CH Jones. (27-Jun 2007). Illuminating the plate interface structure beneath Cook Strait, New Zealand, with receiver functions. JOURNAL OF GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH-SOLID EARTH, 112(B6). 10.1029/2006JB004552
  • Zandt, G, H Gilbert, TJ Owens, M Ducea, J Saleeby and CH Jones. (2-Sep 2004). Active foundering of a continental arc root beneath the southern Sierra Nevada in California. NATURE, 431(7004), 41-46. 10.1038/nature02847
  • Boyd, OS, CH Jones and AF Sheehan. (30-Jul 2004). Foundering lithosphere imaged beneath the Southern Sierra Nevada, California, USA. SCIENCE, 305(5684), 660-662. 10.1126/science.1099181
  • Molnar, P and CH Jones. (MAR 2004). A test of laboratory based rheological parameters of olivine from an analysis of late Cenozoic convective removal of mantle lithosphere beneath the Sierra Nevada, California, USA. GEOPHYSICAL JOURNAL INTERNATIONAL, 156(3), 555-564. 10.1111/j.1365-246X.2004.02138.x
  • Wilson, CK, CH Jones, P Molnar, AF Sheehan and OS Boyd. (OCT 2004). Distributed deformation in the lower crust and upper mantle beneath a continental strike-slip fault zone: Marlborough fault system, South Island, New Zealand. GEOLOGY, 32(10), 837-840. 10.1130/G20657.1
  • Jones, CH, GL Farmer and J Unruh. (NOV-DEC 2004). Tectonics of Pliocene removal of lithosphere of the Sierra Nevada, California. GEOLOGICAL SOCIETY OF AMERICA BULLETIN, 116(12-Nov), 1408-1422. 10.1130/B25397.1
  • Wilson, CK, CH Jones and HJ Gilbert. (1-May 2003). Single-chamber silicic magma system inferred from shear wave discontinuities of the crust and uppermost mantle, Coso geothermal area, California. JOURNAL OF GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH-SOLID EARTH, 108(B5). 10.1029/2002JB001798
  • Jones, CH. (DEC 2002). User-driven integrated software lives: "Paleomag" paleomagnetics analysis on the Macintosh. COMPUTERS & GEOSCIENCES, 28(10), 1145-1151. 10.1016/S0098-3004(02)00032-8
  • Jones, CH, LJ Sonder and JR Unruh. (MAY 1999). Lithospheric gravitational potential energy and past orogenesis: Implications for conditions of initial Basin and Range and Laramide deformation: Reply. GEOLOGY, 27(5), 475-476.
  • Sonder, LJ and CH Jones. (1999). Western United States extension: How the West was widened. ANNUAL REVIEW OF EARTH AND PLANETARY SCIENCES, 27, 417-+. 10.1146/annurev.earth.27.1.417
  • Jones, CH, LJ Sonder and JR Unruh. (JUL 1998). Lithospheric gravitational potential energy and past orogenesis: Implications for conditions of initial basin and range and Laramide deformation. GEOLOGY, 26(7), 639-642. 10.1130/0091-7613(1998)026<0639:LGPEAP>2.3.CO;2
  • Jones, CH and RA Phinney. (10-May 1998). Seismic structure of the lithosphere from teleseismic converted arrivals observed at small arrays in the southern Sierra Nevada and vicinity, California. JOURNAL OF GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH-SOLID EARTH, 103(B5), 10065-10090. 10.1029/97JB03540
  • Sheehan, AF, CH Jones, MK Savage, S Ozalaybey and JM Schneider. (1-Nov 1997). Contrasting lithospheric structure between the Colorado Plateau and Great Basin: Initial results from Colorado Plateau - Great Basin PASSCAL experiment. GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, 24(21), 2609-2612. 10.1029/97GL02782
  • Wernicke, B, R Clayton, M Ducea, CH Jones, S Park, S Ruppert, J Saleeby, JK Snow, L Squires, M Fliedner, G Jiracek, R Keller, S Klemperer, J Luetgert, P Malin, K Miller, W Mooney, H Oliver and R Phinney. (12-Jan 1996). Origin of high mountains in the continents: The southern Sierra Nevada. SCIENCE, 271(5246), 190-193. 10.1126/science.271.5246.190
  • Jones, CH, JR Unruh and LJ Sonder. (2-May 1996). The role of gravitational potential energy in active deformation in the southwestern United States. NATURE, 381(6577), 37-41. 10.1038/381037a0
  • SHEEHAN, AF, GA ABERS, CH JONES and AL LERNERLAM. (10-Oct 1995). CRUSTAL THICKNESS VARIATIONS ACROSS THE COLORADO ROCKY-MOUNTAIN FROM TELESEISMIC RECEIVER FUNCTIONS. JOURNAL OF GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH-SOLID EARTH, 100(B10), 20391-20404. 10.1029/95JB01966
  • WESNOUSKY, SG and CH JONES. (NOV 1994). OBLIQUE SLIP, SLIP PARTITIONING, SPATIAL AND TEMPORAL CHANGES IN THE REGIONAL STRESS-FIELD, AND THE RELATIVE STRENGTH OF ACTIVE FAULTS IN THE BASIN AND RANGE, WESTERN UNITED-STATES. GEOLOGY, 22(11), 1031-1034. 10.1130/0091-7613(1994)022<1031:OSSPSA>2.3.CO;2
  • SAVAGE, MK, L LI, JP EATON, CH JONES and JN BRUNE. (AUG 1994). EARTHQUAKE REFRACTION PROFILES OF THE ROOT OF THE SIERRA-NEVADA. TECTONICS, 13(4), 803-817.
  • SONDER, LJ, CH JONES, SL SALYARDS and KM MURPHY. (AUG 1994). VERTICAL AXIS ROTATIONS IN THE LAS-VEGAS VALLEY SHEAR ZONE, SOUTHERN NEVADA - PALEOMAGNETIC CONSTRAINTS ON KINEMATICS AND DYNAMICS OF BLOCK ROTATIONS. TECTONICS, 13(4), 769-788.
  • JONES, CH and SG WESNOUSKY. (3-Apr 1992). VARIATIONS IN STRENGTH AND SLIP RATE ALONG THE SAN-ANDREAS FAULT SYSTEM. SCIENCE, 256(5053), 83-86.
  • JONES, CH, BP WERNICKE, GL FARMER, JD WALKER, DS COLEMAN, LW MCKENNA and FV PERRY. (30-Oct 1992). VARIATIONS ACROSS AND ALONG A MAJOR CONTINENTAL RIFT - AN INTERDISCIPLINARY STUDY OF THE BASIN AND RANGE PROVINCE, WESTERN USA. TECTONOPHYSICS, 213(2-Jan), 57-96. 10.1016/0040-1951(92)90252-2
  • NELSON, MR and CH JONES. (FEB 1987). PALEOMAGNETISM AND CRUSTAL ROTATIONS ALONG A SHEAR ZONE, LAS-VEGAS RANGE, SOUTHERN NEVADA. TECTONICS, 6(1), 13-33.
  • JONES, CH. (AUG 1987). IS EXTENSION IN DEATH-VALLEY ACCOMMODATED BY THINNING OF THE MANTLE LITHOSPHERE BENEATH THE SIERRA-NEVADA, CALIFORNIA. TECTONICS, 6(4), 449-473.