Late Jurassic to Eocene evolution of the Cordilleran thrust belt and foreland basin system, western U.S.A

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Geochronological, structural, and sedimentological data provide the basis for a regional synthesis of the evolution of the Cordilleran retroarc thrust belt and foreland basin system in the western U.S.A. In this region, the Cordilleran orogenic belt became tectonically consolidated during Late Jurassic time (∼ 155 Ma) with the closure of marginal oceanic basins and accretion of fringing arcs along the western edge of the North American plate. Over the ensuing 100 Myr, contractile deformation propagated approximately 1000 kilometers eastward, culminating in the formation of the Laramide Rocky Mountain ranges. At the peak of its development, the retroarc side of the Cordillera was divided into five tectonomorphic zones, including from west to east the Luning-Fencemaker thrust belt; the central Nevada (or Eureka) thrust belt; a high-elevation plateau (the "Nevadaplano"); the topographically rugged Sevier fold-thrust belt; and the Laramide zone of intraforeland basement uplifts and basins. Mid-crustal rocks beneath the Nevadaplano experienced high-grade metamorphism and shortening during Late Jurassic and mid- to Late Cretaceous time, and the locus of major, upper crustal thrust faulting migrated sporadically eastward. By Late Cretaceous time, the middle crust beneath the Nevadaplano was experiencing decompression and cooling, perhaps in response to large-magnitude ductile extension and isostatic exhumation, concurrent with ongoing thrusting in the frontal Sevier belt. The tectonic history of the Sevier belt was remarkably consistent along strike of the orogenic belt, with emplacement of regional-scale Proterozoic and Paleozoic megathrust sheets during Early Cretaceous time and multiple, more closely spaced, Paleozoic and Mesozoic thrust sheets during Late Cretaceous-Paleocene time. Coeval with emplacement of the frontal thrust sheets, large structural culminations in Archean-Proterozoic crystalline basement developed along the basement step formed by Neoproterozoic rifting. A complex foreland basin system evolved in concert with the orogenic wedge. During its early and late history (∼ 155 - 110 Ma and ∼ 70 - 55 Ma) the basin was dominated by nonmarine deposition, whereas marine waters inundated the basin during its midlife (∼ 110 - 70 Ma). Late Jurassic basin development was controlled by both flexural and dynamic subsidence. From Early Cretaceous through early Late Cretaceous time the basin was dominated by flexural subsidence. From Late Cretaceous to mid-Cenozoic time the basin was increasingly partitioned by basement-involved Laramide structures. Linkages between Late Jurassic and Late Cretaceous Cordilleran arc-magmatism and westward underthrusting of North American continental lithosphere beneath the arc are not plainly demonstrable from the geological record in the Cordilleran thrust belt. A significant lag-time (∼ 20 Myr) between shortening and coeval underthrusting, on the one hand, and generation of arc melts, on the other, is required for any linkage to exist. However, inferred Late Jurassic lithospheric delamination may have provided a necessary precondition to allow relatively rapid Early Cretaceous continental underthrusting, which in turn could have catalyzed the Late Cretaceous arc flare-up.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)105-168
Number of pages64
JournalAmerican Journal of Science
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2004

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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