The thermochronologic record of erosion and magmatism in the canyonlands region of the Colorado plateau

Kendra E. Murray, Peter W. Reiners, Stuart N. Thomson, Xavier Robert, Kelin X. Whipple

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


The Cenozoic history of crustal deformation, surface uplift, and erosion of the central Colorado Plateau (southwestern USA) is distinct from and relatively poorly understood compared with surrounding regions in the North American Cordillera, including the Grand Canyon region and the southwestern Plateau margin. Here, we present new apatite thermochronologic results from Paleozoic- Mesozoic sandstones sampled in the Canyonlands region-the interior of the Colorado Plateau in southeastern Utah. The apatite (U-Th-Sm)/He (He) ages are highly dispersed, with both positive-slope and negative-slope age-effective U (eU) trends. Samples with apatite He results suitable for thermal history modeling are from the Abajo and La Sal mountains intrusive complexes and the Permian, Triassic, and Jurassic rocks sampled near the Colorado River at Lees Ferry, Arizona, and Hite, Utah. Samples with the richest thermal history information have positive-slope apatite He age-[eU] trends, with ages ca. 10 to 5 Ma at [eU] < 10 ppm and ca. 25 to 20 Ma at [eU] > 60 ppm. Modeled thermal histories that best predict this pattern require two periods of rock cooling: One during the middle Cenozoic ca. 30 to 20 Ma and the other since the latest Miocene ca. 6 Ma. The most recent cooling documents the transition from a slowly eroding Miocene landscape to recent rapid erosion that likely postdates 6 Ma and the integration of the modern Colorado River. Middle Cenozoic rock cooling can be attributed to either 1 km of erosion between ca. 25 and 15 Ma, as previous workers have suggested in other parts of the Colorado Plateau region, or relaxation of a geothermal gradient transiently doubled by magmatism associated with the vigorous magmatic flare-up that swept through the region ca. 34 to 20 Ma. The ambiguity of using middle Cenozoic rock cooling as a proxy for erosion in this region means that this event should be described using a nongenetic term: The Middle Cenozoic Cooling Event.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)339-380
Number of pages42
JournalAmerican Journal of Science
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2019


  • (U-Th)/He age variability
  • Apatite thermochronology
  • Colorado Plateau
  • Erosion
  • Flare-up magmatism
  • Middle Cenozoic rock cooling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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