Erosional history of the Appalachians as recordeed in detrital zircon fission-track ages and lithic detritus in Atlantic Coastal Plain sediments

American Journal of Science
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Abstract

Comparison of fission-track (FT) ages of detrital zircons recovered from Atlantic Coastal Plain sediments to FT ages of zircons from bedrock in source terranes in the Appalachians provides a key to understanding the provenance of the sediments and, in turn, the erosional and depositional history of the Atlantic passive margin.

In Appalachian source terranes, the oldest zircon fission-track (ZFT) ages from bedrock in the western Appalachians (defined for this paper as the Appalachian Plateau, Valley and Ridge, and far western Blue Ridge) are notably older than the oldest ages from bedrock in the eastern Appalachians (Piedmont and main part of the Blue Ridge). The age difference is seen both in ZFT sample ages and in individual zircon grain ages and reflects differences in the thermotectonic history of the rocks. In the east, ZFT data indicate that the rocks cooled from temperatures high enough to partially or totally reset ZFT ages during the Paleozoic and (or) Mesozoic. The majority of the rocks are interpreted to have cooled through the ZFT closure temperature (∼235 °C) at various times during the late Paleozoic Alleghanian orogeny. In contrast, most of the rocks sampled in the western Appalachians have never been heated to temperatures high enough to totally reset their ZFT ages. Reflecting their contrasting thermotectonic histories, nearly 80 percent of the sampled western rocks yield one or more zircon grains with very old FT ages, in excess of 800 Ma; zircon grains yielding FT ages this old have not been found in rocks in the Piedmont and main part of the Blue Ridge. The ZFT data suggest that the asymmetry of zircon ages of exposed bedrock in the eastern and western Appalachians was in evidence by no later than the Early Cretaceous and probably by the Late Triassic.

Detrital zircon suites from sands collected in the Atlantic Coastal Plain provide a record of detritus eroded from source terranes in the Appalachians during the Mesozoic and Cenozoic. In Virginia and Maryland, sands of Early Cretaceous through late early Oligocene age do not yield any old zircons comparable in age to the old zircons found in bedrock in the western Appalachians. Very old zircons yielding FT ages >800 Ma are only encountered in Coastal Plain sands of middle early Miocene and younger age.

Miocene and younger fluvial-deltaic deposits associated with the major mid-Atlantic Coastal Plain rivers that now head in the western Appalachians (the Hudson, Delaware, Susquehanna, Potomac, James, and Roanoke) contain abundant clasts of fossiliferous chert and quartzite and other distinctive rock types derived from Paleozoic rocks of the western Appalachians. These distinctive clasts have not been reported in older Coastal Plain sediments.

The ZFT and lithic detritus data indicate that the drainage divide for one or more east-flowing mid-Atlantic rivers migrated west into the western Appalachians, and the river(s) began transporting western Appalachian detritus to the Atlantic Coastal Plain, sometime between the late early Oligocene and middle early Miocene. By no later than late middle Miocene most if not all of the major rivers that now head west of the Blue Ridge were transporting western Appalachian detritus to the Coastal Plain. Prior to the drainage divide migrating into the western Appalachians, the ZFT data are consistent with the dominant source of Atlantic Coastal Plain sediments being detritus from the Piedmont and main part of the Blue Ridge, with possible input from distant volcanic sources.

The ZFT data suggest that the rapid increase in the rate of siliciclastic sediment accumulation in middle Atlantic margin offshore basins that peaked in the middle Miocene and produced almost 30 percent of the total volume of post-rift siliciclastic sediments in the offshore basins began in the early Miocene when Atlantic river(s) gained access to the relatively easily eroded Paleozoic sedimentary rocks of the western Appalachians.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Erosional history of the Appalachians as recordeed in detrital zircon fission-track ages and lithic detritus in Atlantic Coastal Plain sediments
Series title American Journal of Science
DOI 10.2475/02.2016.02
Volume 316
Issue 2
Year Published 2016
Language English
Publisher American Journal of Science
Contributing office(s) Eastern Geology and Paleoclimate Science Center
Description 59 p.
First page 110
Last page 168