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Intra-oceanic subduction shaped the assembly of Cordilleran North America

Nature volume 496, pages 5056 (04 April 2013) | Download Citation

Abstract

The western quarter of North America consists of accreted terranes—crustal blocks added over the past 200 million years—but the reason for this is unclear. The widely accepted explanation posits that the oceanic Farallon plate acted as a conveyor belt, sweeping terranes into the continental margin while subducting under it. Here we show that this hypothesis, which fails to explain many terrane complexities, is also inconsistent with new tomographic images of lower-mantle slabs, and with their locations relative to plate reconstructions. We offer a reinterpretation of North American palaeogeography and test it quantitatively: collision events are clearly recorded by slab geometry, and can be time calibrated and reconciled with plate reconstructions and surface geology. The seas west of Cretaceous North America must have resembled today’s western Pacific, strung with island arcs. All proto-Pacific plates initially subducted into almost stationary, intra-oceanic trenches, and accumulated below as massive vertical slab walls. Above the slabs, long-lived volcanic archipelagos and subduction complexes grew. Crustal accretion occurred when North America overrode the archipelagos, causing major episodes of Cordilleran mountain building.

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Acknowledgements

We thank D. Müller for making available the plate reconstructions of ref. 22 before publication (for Fig. 1), as well as the Shatsky plateau reconstructions of ref. 39 for Fig. 3. We thank G. W. Ernst for a constructive review. The P-wave tomography model used here is available in ASCII format as part of the Auxiliary Materials for ref. 13 at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2010GC003421/suppinfo or may be obtained from K.S. This is British Columbia Geological Survey contribution #2012-2.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Theresienstrasse 41, 80333 Munich, Germany

    • Karin Sigloch
  2. British Columbia Geological Survey, PO Box 9333 Stn Prov Govt, Victoria, British Columbia V8W 9N3, Canada

    • Mitchell G. Mihalynuk

Authors

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Contributions

K.S. generated the tomographic model, and integrated it with quantitative plate tectonic reconstructions in GPlates. M.G.M. provided the geological background and made the terrane maps of Fig. 3. Both authors contributed equally to developing the tectonic arguments and to the writing.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Karin Sigloch or Mitchell G. Mihalynuk.

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    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Figures 1-3, Supplementary Tables 1-2, Supplementary Discussion of data uncertainties and error propagation and Supplementary References.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12019

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