Tectonic subsidence curves show that the Illinois, Michigan, and Williston basins formed by initial fault-controlled mechanical subsidence during rifting and by subsequent thermal subsidence. Thermal subsidence began around 525 Ma in the Illinois Basin, 520–460 Ma in the Michigan Basin, and 530–500 Ma in the Williston Basin. In the Illinois Basin, a second subsidence episode (middle Mississippian through Early Permian) was caused by flexural foreland subsidence in response to the Alleghanian-Hercynian orogeny. Resurgent Permian rifting in the Illinois Basin is inferred because of intrusion of well-dated Permian alnoites; such intrusive rocks are normally associated with rifting processes.

The process of formation of these cratonic basins remains controversial. Past workers have suggested mantle phase changes at the base of the crust, mechanical subsidence in response to isostatically uncompensated excess mass following igneous intrusions, intrusion of mantle plumes into the crust, or regional thermal metamorphic events as causes of basin initiation. Cratonic basins of North America, Europe, Africa, and South America share common ages of formation (around 550 to 500 Ma), histories of sediment accumulation, temporal volume changes of sediment fills, and common dates of interregional unconformities. Their common date of formation suggests initiation of cratonic basins in response to breakup of a late Precambrian super-continent. This supercontinent acted as a heat lens that caused partial melting of the lower crust and upper mantle followed by emplacement of anorogenic granites during extensional tectonics in response to supercontinent breakup. Intrusion of anorogenic granites and other partially melted intrusive rocks weakened continental lithosphere, thus providing a zone of localized regional stretching and permitting formation of cratonic basins almost simultaneously over sites of intrusion of these anorogenic granites and other partially melted intrusive rocks.

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