Low-temperature thermochronology of the northern Rocky Mountains, western U.S.A.

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We dated 86 borehole and surface samples from basement-cored Laramide uplifts of the northern Rocky Mountain foreland (Wind River, Beartooth, Bighorn and Laramie Ranges) using the apatite (U-Th)/He system, and eleven samples using the apatite fission-track system (Wind River and Bighorn Ranges). Apatite (U-Th)/He ages generally decrease with increasing subsurface depth (decreasing elevation), and typically range from ∼100 to 50 Ma (Cretaceous to Eocene) within ∼1 km of the surface, to ∼20 Ma (Miocene) and younger ages at depths greater than ∼2 to 2.5 km. Most samples display (U-Th)/He age dispersion ranging from tens to hundreds of Ma, and for some samples we find ages that are older than corresponding fission-track ages. At least one sample per range shows a correlation between apatite (U-Th)/He age and effective U concentration (eU ∼ [U] 0.235[Th]) of the crystal, indicating that radiation damage has affected He diffusivity, and hence (U-Th)/He age. Forward modeling of simple Laramide-type thermal histories using a radiation damage diffusion model predicts: 1) fossil apatite fission-track partial annealing and apatite (U-Th)/He partial retention zones over similar elevation ranges, 2) (U-Th)/He age dispersion within a fossil partial retention zone up to hundreds of Ma, and 3) (U-Th)/He ages older than fission-track ages within a fossil partial retention zone if eU ∼ 20 ppm. We observe these features in our data from the Bighorn and Laramie Ranges. Most of our samples, however, do not show the correlation between (UTh)/He age and eU predicted by radiation damage diffusion models. The age dispersion of these samples could be due to the influence of both grain size and eU content, or alternatively due to high U or Th secondary rims around the apatite crystals. (U-Th)/He ages that are older than fission-track ages from Gannett Peak and Fremont Peak in the Wind River Range, and some samples from the Beartooth Range, are most likely the result of He implantation from high eU secondary rims. Best-fit time-temperature paths from inverse modeling of (U-Th)/He age-eU pairs, when extrapolated to other elevations to create model age-elevation plots, reproduce the general distribution and dispersion of (U-Th)/He ages from the Bighorn, Beartooth and Wind River Ranges and suggest that rapid exhumation within the Laramide province likely began earlier in the Bighorn Range (before ∼71 Ma) than the Beartooth Range (before ∼58 Ma). Inverse modeling of borehole data at the northern end of the Laramie Range suggests that the well penetrated a fault sliver at depth. The amount and timing of post-Laramide burial and exhumation cannot be determined from these data.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)145-212
Number of pages68
JournalAmerican Journal of Science
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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