The Cantwell Formation consists of a lower sedimentary sequence as much as 4000 m thick and an upper volcanic sequence with a maximum thickness of 3750 m that was deposited in the Cantwell basin, south-central Alaska. Previous to this study, the Cantwell basin was interpreted as a Paleogene, nonmarine (mainly fluvial), pull-apart basin that formed in response to dextral, strike-slip displacement on the Denali fault system. This study proposes that the Cantwell basin formed as part of the Mesozoic accretionary phase of deformation, prior to the development of the Cenozoic postaccretionary Denali fault system. Our reinterpretation is based on several new lines of data.
(1) Age. New data based on palynologic analyses of 135 fine-grained samples indicate that the lower Cantwell Formation was deposited during the late Campanian and early Maastrichtian. On the basis of previous regional tectonic studies and this new age constraint, the formation of the Cantwell basin was coeval with regional Late Cretaceous shortening associated with accretionary tectonics in southern Alaska.
(2) Depositional systems. Our analysis of the Cantwell Formation demonstrates that sedimentation occurred mainly in stream-dominated alluvial fan, axial braided stream, and lacustrine settings. These depositional systems were strongly influenced by a southward dipping, asymmetric basin floor. The presence of abundant terrestrially derived organic material, together with palynological assemblages that include marine dinoflagellates and the associated presence of oncolites, may be suggestive of a time of marginal marine influence during the deposition of the upper part of the lower Cantwell Formation. The late Campanian to early Maastrichtian timing of this possible marine influence is within the range of the Bearpaw transgressive event of the Cordilleran foreland basin and allows for regional stratigraphic correlation of the Cantwell basin with other sedimentary basins in northwestern North America.
(3) Structural controls on basin formation. Mapping of intraformational angular unconformities and progressively tilted strata along the southern margin of the Cantwell basin provides direct evidence that thrust fault deformation and lower Cantwell Formation sedimentation were synchronous. Distinctive Cantwell Formation conglomerate clasts derived from the uplifted hanging walls of nearby thrust sheets adjacent to the southern basin margin also support a syndepositional thrusting interpretation. Provenance data and the concentration of proximal alluvial fan deposits along the northwestern basin margin adjacent to the Hines Creek fault indicate that it, too, was active during deposition of the Cantwell Formation.
On the basis of the new data, the Cantwell basin is interpreted to have formed as a thrust-top basin (i.e., piggyback basin) along the Late Cretaceous suture zone between the accreting Wrangellia composite terrane and the North American continental margin. In contrast to previous studies, this reinterpretation of the formation of the Cantwell basin implies that the lower Cantwell Formation is not a synorogenic deposit directly associated with strike-slip displacement along the Denali fault system. Therefore, the Cantwell basin cannot be used to constrain the timing for the early development of the Denali fault system.