The provenance of sedimentary strata that accumulate in foreland basins record the growth and denudation of the adjacent orogen. We use U-Pb geochronology of detrital zircon and monazite, Sm-Nd isotope geochemistry, trac- and rare earth element geochemistry, and petrographic data from synorogenic clastic sedimentary rocks in the Cordilleran foreland basin of southwestern Alberta to provide new perspectives on the evolution of the orogen. Foreland basin clastic rocks comprise three major pulses of sediment delivery: (1) upper Fernie Formation–Kootenay Group (154–142 Ma), (2) Blairmore Group (115–103 Ma), and (3) Milk River Group–Porcupine Hills Formation (78–58 Ma). Nd isotope data are dominated by ϵNd values of −7 to −12, interpreted to represent a well-mixed provenance from Devonian through Triassic strata and subordinate contributions from thrust-imbricated pr-Devonian strata of the Cordilleran miogeocline. Significant deviations to less negative (more juvenile) values between −5 and +1 represent periods when the foreland was flooded by juvenile detritus from oceanic arc sources such as Quesnel terrane and from syndepositional continental magmatic arcs of mid- and Late Cretaceous ages.
Detrital zircon and monazite from the Ferni-Kootenay clastic pulse (pulse 1) indicate derivation from Triassic-Ordovician sandstones imbricated within the thrust-and-fold belt, consistent with the Nd tracer results and petrography. U-Pb zircon ages from the Blair-more Group (pulse 2) confirm a provenance from Triassic and Jurassic arc rocks of Quesnel terrane with only minor contributions from older miogeoclinal rocks; they also record the presence of syndepositional magmatic material. The upper part of the Blairmore Group shows a transition to less juvenile Nd isotopic signatures and the reappearance of detrital zircons of miogeoclinal derivation. A similar pattern occurs in the Milk River–Porcupine interval (pulse 3) with juvenile material occurring early in the sequence, accompanied by zircon grains from syndepositional volcanic sources and by more continental material in the upper part of the sequence.
Pulse 1 records the erosion of thrust-imbricated miogeoclinal rocks during the creation and erosion of the foreland thrust-and-fold belt with no detectable material derived from the deeper parts of the hinterland. A significant unconformity of ∼27 m.y. duration led to redistribution of the foreland basin fill and erosion of the adjacent thrust-and-fold belt and corresponds to a period of magmatic and tectonic quiescence in the southern Canadian Cordillera. Renewed contraction within the erosionally modified thrust wedge led to development of out-of-sequence thrust structures which allowed juvenile terranes (Quesnel terrane) to become the dominant source for foreland (pulse 2) to the exclusion of miogeoclinal material. Reappearance of the miogeoclinal signature in upper pulse 2 is interpreted to record eastward propagation of the thrust-and-fold belt into miogeoclinal strata. The third pulse of sediment records significant input of windblown ash from juvenile sources in the Coast Belt mixed with bedload components derived from more local sources in the eastern Cordillera. The youngest deposits in the basin (ca. 58 Ma) are characterized by a cosmopolitan provenance that likely records cannibalization of older parts of the foreland as previously deposited foreland strata became important components of the thrust wedge.