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The highest-grade Barrovian-type metamorphic rocks of the North American Cordillera exposed today are Late Cretaceous in age and found within an orogen-parallel belt of metamorphic core complexes for which the tectonic histories remain controversial. Thermobarometric studies indicate that many of these Late Cretaceous metamorphic assemblages formed at pressures of >8 kbar, conventionally interpreted as >30 km depth by assuming lithostatic conditions. However, in the northern Basin and Range Province, detailed structural reconstructions and a growing body of contradictory geologic data in and around the metamorphic core complexes indicate these metamorphic rocks are unlikely to have ever been buried any deeper than ~15 km depth (~4 kbar, lithostatic). Recent models controversially interpret this discrepancy as the result of “tectonic overpressure,” whereby the high-grade mineral assemblages were formed under superlithostatic conditions without significant tectonic burial. We performed several detailed studies within the Snake Range metamorphic core complex to test the possibility that cryptic structures responsible for additional burial and exhumation might exist, which would refute such a model. Instead, our data highlight the continued discordance between paleodepth and paleopressure and suggest the latter may have reached nearly twice the lithostatic pressure in the Late Cretaceous.

First, new detrital zircon U-Pb geochronology combined with finite-strain estimates show that prestrain thicknesses of the lower-plate units that host the high-pressure mineral assemblages correspond closely to the thicknesses of equivalent-age units in adjacent ranges rather than to those of the inferred, structurally overridden (para) autochthon, inconsistent with cross sections and interpretations that assume a lower plate with a deeper origin for these rocks. Second, new Raman spectroscopy of carbonaceous material of upper- and lower-plate units identified an ~200 °C difference in peak metamorphic temperatures across the northern Snake Range detachment but did not identify any intraplate discontinuities, thereby limiting the amount of structural excision to motion on the northern Snake Range detachment itself, and locally, to no more than 7–11 km. Third, mapped geology and field relationships indicate that a pre-Cenozoic fold truncated by the northern Snake Range detachment could have produced ~3–9 km of structural overburden above Precambrian units, on the order of that potentially excised by the northern Snake Range detachment but still far short of expected overburden based on lithostatic assumptions. Fourth, finite-strain measurements indicate a shortening (constrictional) strain regime favorable to superlithostatic conditions. Together, these observations suggest that pressures during peak metamorphism may have locally reached ~150%–200% lithostatic pressure. Such departures from lithostatic conditions are expected to have been most pronounced above regions of high heat flow and partial melting, and/or at the base of regional thrust-bounded allochthons, as is characteristic of the spatial distribution of Cordilleran metamorphic core complexes during the Late Cretaceous Sevier orogeny.

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