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Polygenetic ophiolite belt of the California Sierra Nevada: Geochronological and tectonostratigraphic development

American Geophysical Union
Publication Date
  • Earth Science


The assumption that ophiolite sequences are generated at essentially one point in geologic time by the process of sea-floor spreading is critical for modern concepts in the tectonics of ophiolites and for topics dealing with their structure and petrology. However, this assumption has only been verified in a few locations by an integrated geochronological and structural-stratigraphic approach. Many ophiolite sections are reconstructed from structurally disrupted sequences with the idealized ocean floor model in mind. Such reconstructions are prone to error without adequate age control on each of the reconstructed fragments. This is a significant problem in structurally complex regions where more than one generation of ophiolite may be present. In this paper new Pb/U zircon ages are presented for key locations along a 375 km segment of the western Sierra Nevada ophiolite belt. These age data are combined with structural-stratigraphic observations and published ages, and significant tectonic implications for the ophiolite belt emerge. Three different ophiolitic assemblages are recognized with igneous ages of about 300, 200 and 160 m.y. B.P. Rocks of the 300 m.y. assemblage are in a completely disrupted array of metamorphic tectonite slabs and serpentinite-matrix melange. Fragments of upper Paleozoic seamounts occur in association with the ophiolitic melange, and together these assemblages constitute the basement framework for the western Sierra. Pb/U and K/Ar isotopic systematics are complex within this framework and indicate a polymetamorphic history. Systematics in the 200 and 160 m.y. assemblages are less complex and give tighter igneous age constraints. Rocks of the 200 m.y. assemblage are in a semi-intact state with only local tectonite and melange zones. Rocks of the 160 m.y. assemblage are intact, but nevertheless deformed. Both the 200 and 160 m.y. assemblages have equivalent age basinal volcanic-sedimentary sequences that lie unconformably above the ophiolitic melange basement. In each case the basinal sequences locally extend conformably into the upper stratigraphic levels of the age-equivalent ophiolite sections. These relations along with vestiges of intrusive contacts between the edges of both younger ophiolites and the melange basement indicate that the younger ophiolites underwent igneous formation in proximity to the melange basement. The Sierran ophiolite belt is considered to have formed by a multistage process initiated by the early Mesozoic tectonic accretion of upper Paleozoic sea-floor in general proximity to the ancient continental margin. Regional metamorphism and ophiolitic melange resulted. This accretionary nucleus became the basement of Jurassic-age primitive volcanic arc terranes which underwent rifting episodes during the production of the 200 and 160 m.y. ophiolites. The rifting episodes resulted in the formation of sedimentary basins which were the depositional sites of volcanic-sedimentary sequences. Non-volcanic sources for the basinal sedimentary rocks include the melange basement and continental margin terranes. Contact zones between pre-existing basement and the juvenile ophiolitic sequences created during the rifting episodes consist of dynamothermal metamorphic aureoles, protoclastic deformation zones and cross-cutting dikes. Such edge-zone assemblages are in most localities obscurred or destroyed by superimposed deformations resulting from convergent and perhaps transform motions along basin edges. Both the 200 and 160 m.y. basins were destroyed by compressional orogenic episodes shortly after their formational episodes. Destruction of young ophiolite floored basins may be a common course of events when small oceanic-type plates are generated along continental margin environments. Such tectonic settings are ideal for the emplacement of young ophiolite sheets.

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