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Ignimbrites, as widespread sheets tens of meters thick, form the Central American Tertiary Ignimbrite Province. Geochemical data were collected from 99 Cenozoic marine ash layers within Caribbean Sea sediments, 76 vitrophyres, and 21 mafic lavas from Nicaragua and Honduras. Two major eruptive periods, one in the Eocene and one in the Miocene, have been broadly identified. 40Ar/39Ar laser fusion ages, determined from sanidine or plagioclase in 10 of the vitrophyre samples, have been interpreted to indicate that the bulk of the younger group of ignimbrites formed largely in the middle Miocene during a 3.5-m.y. period between 16.9 and 13.4 Ma. Modeling indicates that initial melts were from a normal mid-oceanic-ridge basalt (N-MORB)–type source, rather than the enriched mid-oceanic-ridge basalt (E-MORB)–type source postulated for the modern arc. All of the ignimbrites analyzed have 87Sr/86Sr isotope values (87Sr/86Sr = 0.7040–0.7069) within the range of continental crust. Trace element trends are similar to those estimated for lower continental crust. Assimilation– fractional crystallization and melt mixing models produce trends that are consistent with ignimbrite compositions. This evidence is consistent with a large influence of continental crust in the ignimbrite formation. In addition, the ignimbrite magmas, like those of the modern arc, have also been determined to have been contaminated by sediment-derived fluids. Abnormally rapid subduction of the Farallon-Cocos plate, which coincides with the formation of the ignimbrites, may have resulted in their generation. A slab gap that currently exists beneath the modern arc may be the cause of a change in source from N-MORB to E-MORB by allowing rising asthenospheric material to “recharge” the mantle wedge in trace elements that had been depleted prior to the gap formation.

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