Wenrong Cao standing above a desert lake holding a camera.

Wenrong Cao

Assistant Professor


I am a structural geologist interested in the evolution of the continents, especially the compositional, thermal, structural, and rheological histories of continental crust along the convergent plate boundaries. I am also interested in how heat and mass (magma, solid rocks, fluid) transfer within the crust, and how tectonic activities interact with long-term climate.

I combine field study with laboratory analysis (LA-ICP-MS, EPMA, EBSD) and numerical modeling to address geological problems/questions. My study areas include the Sierra Nevada Batholith in California, the Gangdese Batholith in southern Tibet, and the Basin and Range Province in Nevada.

Research interests

  • Evolution of magmatic orogens
  • Heat and mass transfer processes in the crust
  • Tectonics and magmatism in Basin and Range

Courses taught

  • GEOL 260 Introductory Field Methods
  • GEOL 332 Structural Geology and Tectonics
  • GEOL 451 Summer Field Camp
  • GEOL 497 Senior Research Project
  • GEOL 735 Lithospheric Dynamics


  • University of Southern California, 2015 PhD
  • China University of Geosciences, Beijing, 2009 BS


  • Cao, W., Kaus, J.P.B, Paterson, S.R., Numerical simulations of the incremental Intrusion of granitic magma into the continental crust facilitated by diking and multiple pulses. Tectonics.doi:10.1002/2015TC004076.
  • Cao, W., Paterson, S. R., 2016, A mass balance and isostasy model of continental arcs: Exploring the interplay between magmatism, tectonism and surface erosion using central Sierra Nevada as a case study. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst., 17, doi: 10.1002/2015GC006229.
  • Cao, W., Paterson, S.R., Saleeby, J., Zalunardo, S., 2016, Bulk arc strain, crustal thickening, magma emplacement, and mass balances in the Mesozoic Sierra Nevada arc. Journal of Structural Geology. v.84, p. 14-30. doi: 10.1016/j.jsg.2015.11.002.
  • Cao, W., Paterson, S.R., Memeti, V., Mundil. R., Anderson, L. and Schmidt, K. 2015, Tracking paleodeformation field in a continental arc: a study of incremental and finite strain in Mesozoic plutons and host rocks, respectively in central Sierra Nevada, California. Lithosphere. v. 7,no. 3, p. 296-320. doi:10.1130/L389.1.
  • Lee, C-T A, Thurner, S., Paterson, S., Cao, W., 2015, The rise and fall of continental arcs: interplays between magmatism, uplift, weathering, and climate, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, doi: 10.1016/j.epsl.2015.05.045.
  • Davis, G.A., Meng, J., Cao, W., Du, X. 2009, Triassic and Jurassic Tectonics in the Eastern Yanshan Belt, North China: Insights from the Controversial Dengzhangzi Formation and Its Neighboring Units. Earth Science Frontiers. Vol. 16, p.69-86.