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The 85 Ma Trainwreck: Schists

OK, so GG got distracted from this project, but it is high time to look at the pieces of the late Cretaceous puzzle, and first up are the schists of oceanic and forearc affinity. These are often classed as the Pelona/Orocopia/Rand (or POR) schists after the three more voluminous exposures, but there are many individual schist bodies that have similar lithologies and age constraints that are usually included in any examination of the origins of these bodies.

Generally speaking, these are metasedimentary bodies with occasional metabasalts and far more rarely, pieces of deeper lithosphere. They are broadly aligned today in a northwest-southeast swath more or less along the San Andreas, with the major exceptions being the Catalina Schist on Santa Catalina Island, the Rand Schist well to the east along the Garlock fault, and recently recognized bodies in central Arizona. When Cenozoic deformation is restored, these exposures generally land in a gap between the fairly undeformed Sierra Nevada Batholith and the Peninsular Ranges Batholith. As such, they seem connected to the more chaotic Mesozoic geology of the Mojave Desert, where these rocks underlie in fault contact middle crustal plutonic rocks. As such, these are widely interpreted to represent the product of some kind of very low-angle subduction event.

Dating the emplacement of the schists is important to all the stories of the Late Cretaceous in this part of the world; for a long time ages were hard to come by (the schists were often originally mapped as Precambrian), but the ability to date individual zircons broke open the problem.  Basically individual detrital zircons in a schist must predate the metamorphism and creation of the schist.  Cooling ages from more traditional geochronology then documents either the emplacement of schists at higher levels in the subduction zone or its cooling down while sitting in a cooling upper plate environment. A good example of this approach is shown below.


Age constraints on individual schist exposures as represented by a maximum age of emplacement from the detrital zircons in the schists and the metamorphic ages from cooling of the schists.  Organized roughly north (left) to south (right) in a palinspastic sense. From Jacobson et al., GSA Bull, 2011.

There are a number of questions that arise, and we’ll see what we can say about them below (this is apt to get long):

  1. How robust are these ages?
  2. What does an emplacement age represent in terms of the broader tectonic environment?
  3. What does the spatial and temporal variation in emplacement ages telling us?


Read More…

Getting Colorado High: So What?

So in the previous two installments, we reviewed ideas for how the High Plains got so high and some of the observations out there that bear on this question. Beyond satisfying some curiosity, what does this do for earth science?  Why pay money to do this?

Let’s consider three outcomes: that the High Plains gained their elevation by the end of the Laramide orogeny (say, 40 Ma), that they gained their elevation after the deposition of the Ogallala Group (say about 5 Ma), and that they were high, went down, and rose again. Read More…

Getting Colorado High: Theories

No, not high in that sense…high like “Mile High City”. This still is a problem GG is interested in and so for grins let’s quickly review the main ideas GG has seen with their pros and cons. The candidates are thickening the crust mechanically or by piling on sediment, thinning the mantle lithosphere, dynamic topography, hydrating the mantle or the crust, depleting the lithosphere, and emplacing depleted lithosphere. Whew! GG’s hot takes on these below the fold… Read More…

Diamonds Or Paste?

Occasionally a paper comes along that rattles you out of your present biases; whether the paper is right or not is less important than getting you thinking.  A paper in Geology got GG thinking about some things he’d ignored…

Kimberlites are rather famous kinds of igneous intrusions as they host most of the world’s diamonds. These eruptions originate at great depths in the earth but seem to pop up rather erratically and their relationship to subduction zones and the like is somewhere between unclear and non-existent. In North America, they seem to pop up in sort of broad swaths of the continent. One band in particular is of interest to those of us studying the origins of the Cordillera: a collection of Cretaceous kimberlites that seem to have erupted almost under the eastern part of the seaway that ran from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic.

Most workers have generally sought to connect these Cretaceous eruptions to the subduction of the Farallon plate under North America. This proposal generally seems to work by adding fluids to the deep continental lithosphere, which would then generate the melts that rise forcefully to the surface to emplace the kimberlites (e.g., Currie and Beaumont, 2011).


Cretaceous (red) and Tertiary (white) kimberlites and related deeply-sourced magmas as plotted by Currie and Beaumont (2011).

In this view, the easterly positions of the kimberlites in the Cretaceous reflects a fairly low-angle subduction regime that would have had to be established by 112 Ma (the oldest intrusion in Kansas) and continued to about 85-90 Ma in the U.S. and into the Tertiary in Canada.

The alternative in a recent issue of Geology by Zhang and others looks at this in a very different direction, namely with westward subduction of North America under the western Cordillera, an idea put forward in some lengthy publications by Robert Hildebrand. Read More…

Cordilleran Contradictions, 2018 edition

Spent many hours in November sitting in on sessions and perusing posters at the Geological Society of America annual meeting; one goal was to see what’s up with the evolution of elevation of the U.S. Cordillera.

First a quick recap. There are two camps, more or less, on each side of the Cordillera.  The old mountains camp on both sides points mainly to oxygen and hydrogen isotope variations in proxies for precipitation. There are also attempts to retrodeform the lithosphere resulting in thick crust and high elevations. The dominant counterargument is that the paleometeorology used to interpret the isotopic values is flawed. On the young mountain side, classical geologic observations are invoked, including apparent tilting of river channels and the recent incision events in many places. The counterargument to this is that the appearance of a tilted channel may be biased by the depositional environment and that changes in climate can drive incision as easily as uplift. In between in some ways are geophysical observations of the lithosphere; recent changes in the lithosphere seem likely in much of the region, supporting younger mountains, but seem older east of the Southern Rockies.

Well, a meeting in Indianapolis isn’t one to bring out all the western geologists (next year’s meeting in Phoenix is a whole different matter), but a couple of things popped up. Did anything look to change the landscape, either by opening up new vistas or overturning old results? Not that GG discerned.  Below are some notes probably only of interest to the most interested….

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Occam’s Cut

In the previous post, we discussed how Occam’s Razor is of little use in some arguments, leading to the principle of least astonishment. But here GG would like to suggest that the shear immensity of geologic time means that Occam sometimes cuts us off from explanations we need to consider.

In this case, let’s talk Laramide.  Orogeny, that is, the creation of the Southern Rocky Mountains between something like 75 and 45 million years ago. The prevailing explanation is that the subducting ocean floor only went down to about 100 km or so and turned flat, interacting with the continent in a way to make mountains far from the plate edge. It is a nice compact explanation.

The thing is, there are a lot of places where slabs today are flat and none of them produce anything of the scale of the Laramide Orogeny.  Closest are the Sierras Pampeanas in Argentina, which are far closer to the trench than the Laramide ranges were, among other difficulties. Even looking over past orogenies yields few plausible rivals–maybe the Alice Springs orogeny in Australia, or if you push things hard, perhaps the Atlas ranges in northern Africa. Or, of course, the Ancestral Rockies in almost the same place as the Laramide. But these are just as cryptic and far less common than all the events that created the Appalachians, or the Urals, or the Caledonides, or the bulk of the Alpine-Himalayan system.

Perhaps, when we encounter oddities in the past, we need to recognize that something unusual happened, meaning that Occam’s bias for parsimony might in fact be precisely the wrong bias. For instance, somebody walks up and says they will flip a coin ten times and it will come up heads.  He asks a passerby for a coin and then does as he says.  Parsimony says this was luck, but perhaps a better explanation is that it is a trick either involving an accomplice or sleight-of-hand [scientists are suckers for sleight-of-hand, as the Amazing Randi often showed].

Given the number of times slabs probably have been flat and given the far rarer production of mountain ranges far from the trench, maybe our bias for parsimony should be relaxed–odd and unusual results might demand more than a single cause. Maybe things were a bit Rube Goldberg-ish for awhile. In a similar vein, some workers are arguing that the impact ending the Cretaceous was so effective not just because of its size but because of the sulfur-rich rocks it hit (this in part a response to the absence of other impacts in causing extinction events and other extinction events seemingly lacking a coincident impact). Arguably something like this has or will emerge in explaining how one branch of the great apes led to humans despite lots of earlier evolutions of animals failing to reach a similar end. We often focus on the positive outcome–the mountains made, the extinction that happened–and miss how often the simple explanation predicts something that didn’t happen (kind of like the old quip that the stock market predicted nine of the past five recessions). We don’t ask, why are there no mountains in Iowa, for instance; we ask, why are there mountains in Colorado? But perhaps we need to ask both.

Occam reminds us to be distrustful of overly-complex explanations, but maybe we need to be careful not to demand too much simplicity. All theories will conflict with some observations in some way; there are always strange things that happen that are coincidences or results of unrelated phenomena.  This reality means that no theory will fit every possible observation; what’s more, we tend to accept more misfits for simpler theories (for instance, the half space cooling model for ocean floor topography is widely accepted despite all the oceanic plateaus and seamounts one has to ignore to get a decent fit). Given that, we should wield the Razor more carefully least we cut off our theoretical nose to spite our parsimonious face….

The 85 Ma Trainwreck: Introduction

It used to be when we thought what the southwestern U.S. looked like at 85 million years ago, back in the Cretaceous, we thought things were pretty simple.  There was a nice volcanic arc running from the Sierra down through the Mojave into the (restored) Peninsular Ranges. To the east was a fold-and-thrust belt extending nicely from well up in Canada down to the Las Vegas area in continuous fashion before taking a left turn to angle more erratically into more complex geology across Arizona and New Mexico. East of that was the foreland, its western edge bowed down under the weight of those fold-thrust mountains and the torrent of sediment washed off those ranges toward the inland sea that stretched up from Texas towards the Arctic Ocean. The only real wrinkle in this had to do with where the troublesome exotic terranes now in British Columbia were at the time.

Now it feels like 85 Ma is instead a pivot for everything about the western U.S.  A number of puzzling things seem to be going on around this time.

  • Emplacement of the first of the subducted oceanic/forearc schists (the Catalina and San Emigdio Schists) appears to occur about 85-90 Ma [Jacobson et al., 2011]
  • The Sierra Nevada sees the culmination of the most massive plutonic episode in its history just prior to a complete end to plutonism [e.g., Ducea, 2001]
  • The Mojave Desert will continue to see both peraluminous and metaluminous magmatism for another 10 million years despite the inferred emplacement of most of the Rand Schist over that time. [e.g., Barth et al., 2013]
  • Shortening in the hinterland appears to be a short-lived interval between extensional episodes [Wells et al., 2012]
  • The Sevier fold-and-thrust belt in the vicinity of Las Vegas is dead or dying–some put its end before 90 Ma [e.g., Fleck et al., 1994]
  • Perhaps a northwest-trending thrust belt has instead invaded the area about this time. [Pavlis et al., 2014]
  • Canyons start to form in the southwesternmost Colorado Plateau [Flowers and Farley, 2012].
  • In contrast, the simple foredeep geometry of sediment accumulation in the foreland begins to broaden out, suggesting a “dynamic subsidence”. [Liu and Nummedal, 2004]

By 75 Ma, it is really clear that things have gone super strange.  The Sierran arc is dead with no real replacement. Magmatism at that latitude is limited to smaller intrusions in the Colorado Mineral Belt and some peraluminous (two-mica) granites in Nevada, eastern California and parts of Arizona. In contrast, the Mojave continues to see plutonic activity with both peraluminous and metaluminous magmatism, seeming to be the southwestern end of a long linear belt of unusual magmatism. The Sevier hinterland has several examples of significant decompression accompanied by more limited evidence of extension. The foredeeps in front of the fold-thrust belt seem to have ceased to accumulate much sediment, which is now captured in broader basins farther east. Laramide uplifts are certainly underway.

Although 75 Ma is often taken to be the start of the Laramide orogeny [Dickinson et al., 1988], it increasingly seems like the orogeny’s origins lurk in the preceding 10 million years. What exactly was going on?

Some of the things we don’t really have a solid handle on:

  • Where was the Insular Superterrane? [We might have a more decent view of the Intermontane Superterrane due to work in Idaho over the past decade].
  • What really was the plate geometry? The Kula plate dates back to about this time; were there other plates to the east of the Kula-Farallon-Pacific triple junction?
  • Do we have a good handle on where plutonism was active in the Mojave/Sonoran deserts?
  • How much of the Cretaceous decompression events are from extension vs. some kind of intra-crustal pseudo-convection?
  • How could the southern Nevada part of the fold-thrust belt be inactive?
  • How can schists be emplaced against the middle continental crust immediately below fresh plutonic rocks?

The Laramide Orogeny made North America look the way it does today; this time period holds the keys to understanding how it could happen. Some way-out ideas are kicking around [e.g., Hildebrand, 2009, 2013; Sigloch and Mihalynuk, 2013], though some are moderating a bit [Sigloch and Mihalynuk, 2017]. Conversely, most earth scientists have gravitated to some flavor of subduction of an oceanic plateau as the cause of all the misadventures near the start of the Laramide orogeny. That all of these have pretty substantial flaws shows that the community is struggling to understand just what was going on at the start of the Laramide.  Hopefully over the next few months we can explore some of these topics in some detail…