Eolian sedimentation was widespread in the Rocky Mountains (Rockies herein) during the middle and late Cenozoic. Although changes to eolian depositional environment have significance for tectonics, paleoclimate, and paleogeography, little is known regarding the timing of initiation and the provenance of these eolian sedimentary rocks in the Rockies. Here we study the timing of a transition to eolian depositional environments in the central Rockies and the adjacent Great Plains during the middle Cenozoic, and use sandstone petrography and detrital zircon U-Pb geochronology to constrain the provenance of the eolian sedimentary rocks. Our samples have compositions of Qm44F27Lt29 (Qm is monocrystalline quartz, F is feldspar, and Lt is total lithics), Q47F27L26 (Q is total quartz, L is total non-quartzose lithics), and Qm64P28K8 (P is plagioclase and K is potassic feldspar), and zircon age populations of 17–44 Ma, 45–218 Ma, 220–708 Ma, 948–1326 Ma, 1332–1816 Ma, and 1825–3314 Ma. The youngest zircon population was derived from distal volcanism in western and southwestern North America, and the other populations were derived directly from local Precambrian basements on Laramide ranges and recycled from Paleozoic–lower Cenozoic strata distributed along flanks of Laramide ranges and on the Sevier hinterland. The maximum depositional ages, based on the mean U-Pb ages of the youngest clusters of zircon grains, are generally consistent with the available ash radiometric dates for the latest Eocene–early Miocene samples, confirming that detrital zircon maximum depositional ages can be used to constrain depositional ages when ash beds or dateable minerals in ash beds were not present and when synchronous magmatic activity was intense. The occurrence of eolian deposition initiated during the latest Eocene–early Oligocene and became younger eastward, suggesting eastward progressive drying in the central Rockies. The diachronous drying may have resulted from the combined effect of renewed uplift of the Cordilleran hinterland and central Rockies during the late Eocene and global cooling at the Eocene-Oligocene boundary. The provenance data presented here suggest that during the latest Eocene–early Oligocene, the westerlies and possibly the dry summer monsoon winds transported unlithified fluvial sediments and pyroclastic materials eastward and northeastward, and formed massive eolian deposits in the central Rockies and the adjacent Great Plains. The eolian sedimentation continued into the Miocene and largely blanketed the Precambrian basement cores on Laramide ranges. The unlithified Oligocene eolian sediments were further eroded and recycled into the latest Oligocene–Miocene eolian sedimentary rocks.
- Received 23 June 2015.
- Revision received 19 July 2016.
- Accepted 25 August 2016.
- © Geological Society of America