The latest Cenozoic (<6 Ma) ash beds in the western United States have been intensively studied for several decades. The more widespread of these ash beds are well-documented event horizons that are of great value in studies of the timing and pace of geological, climatological, and biological events throughout the region. Because explosive volcanism was not restricted to latest Neogene time in this region, many older ash beds are likely to prove as useful as younger beds as event horizons, once they are located, characterized, and dated. As a first step in developing a useful chronology of older Cenozoic ash beds in the western United States, we have sampled and analyzed silicic fallout tuffs in middle to late Miocene sedimentary basins across the northern Basin and Range province.
The northern Basin and Range basins, ideally situated in the vicinity of major coeval silicic volcanic centers, contain numerous relatively unaltered, silicic fallout tuffs. We have correlated tuffs between all sampled sections on the basis of glass shard composition. The composite stratigraphic sequence established by the correlations contains more than 200 individual tuffs, including 59 widely distributed tuffs termed correlative tuffs. The tuffs vary widely in composition, but most are in one of two compositional groups: gray metaluminous vitric tuffs (Gm tuffs) or white metaluminous vitric tuffs (Wm tuffs). Distribution patterns, compositional characteristics, and correlation with ash-flow tuffs show that the source for most Gm tuffs was the Snake River Plain volcanic province along the northern edge of the northern Basin and Range, and the source for most Wm tuffs was the southwestern Nevada volcanic field in the southern part of the northern Basin and Range.
The northern Basin and Range tuffs range in age from ca. 16–6 Ma. The ages of individual tuffs are determined variously by direct isotopic dating, by correlation to previously dated fallout and ash-flow tuffs, or by interpolation age estimation. Ages for most tuffs are known to within 0.25 m.y. (1σ) or less and for many tuffs to within 0.1 m.y. or less. The sequence and ages of tuffs established in this study provide insights into the evolution of the northern Basin and Range basins and patterns of explosive volcanism in coeval volcanic centers, and contribute to the development of a high-resolution stratigraphy and chronology of coeval sedimentary deposits throughout the western United States.