Over the past 30 years, both isotope geochronology and plate tectonics grew from infancy into authoritative disciplines in the geological sciences. Previously, mountain systems like the Appalachians had been viewed almost entirely in the context of the classical geosyncline, implying a gradualism in stratigraphic and structural change throughout the orogen. Age control, determined largely from distant fossiliferous strata, was unabashedly carried to high-grade metamorphic rocks based only on lithological correlations. With the new concepts in tectonics came the realization that abrupt breaks in stratigraphy and structure occur in many cases at the boundaries of lithotectonic zones. Fortunately, the new techniques of isotope geochronology could be brought to bear directly on the rocks of the immediate study area. This paper chronicles some of the major contributions to the geology of the New England Appalachians that resulted from these efforts during the past three decades.
In tracing the history of geochronologic research, one encounters an increasingly sophisticated approach to the analytical and interpretive aspects of the discipline. Today, the geochronologist can, under optimum conditions, constrain the age of stratigraphic units, igneous activity, deformation, and metamorphism with accuracy that is capable of resolving fine structure within individual orogenic pulses. He participates in full partnership with other colleagues of the science in unravelling the mysteries of mountain building. Several of the topical problems of New England geology in which geochronology played a key role include (1) the recognition and delineation of Avalonia as a Late Proterozoic eastern basement distinct from more western terranes, (2) the dating of the White Mountain Plutonic-Volcanic Suite, a Mesozoic igneous event spanning 100 m.y., and (3) the temporal and spatial separation of structural and metamorphic features imprinted by the Taconic and Acadian orogenies.
The existing geochronology is summarized into a map and table emphasizing the temporal construction of the New England Appalachians. By using lithotectonic zones as the building blocks of the orogen, seven such zones are defined in terms of pre-, syn-, and post-assembly geologic history. From west to east, these lithotectonic zones are (1) Berkshire-Green Mountain, (2) Rowe-Hawley, (3) Connecticut Valley, (4) Bronson Hill, (5) Kearsarge-Central Maine, (6) Tatnic Hill-Nashoba, and (7) Avalonia. Avalonia is further divided into three subzones, Hope Valley, Esmond-Dedham, and Penobscot Bay, which themselves may have had distinct origins and assembly histories. The boundaries between these zones are faults in most cases, some of which may have had recurring movement to further complicate any plate-tectonic scenario.
A delineation of underlying Grenvillian, Chain Lakes, and Avalonian basement is also attempted, which now can make use of isotopes in igneous rocks as petrogenetic indicators to supplement the rare occurrences of basement outcrop within mobile zones of the orogen. The belt of Permian thermal disturbance within the Kearsarge-Central Maine zone is hypothesized to reflect rapid rebound following compressional thickening of underlying Avalonian basement during the Alleghanian orogeny.