Absolute Velocity of North America during the Mesozoic from Paleomagnetic Data

Bernard A. Housen, Western Washington University
Myrl E. Beck Jr., Western Washington University


We use paleomagnetic data to map Mesozoic absolute motion of North America, using paleomagnetic Euler poles (PEP). First, we address two important questions: (1) How much clockwise rotation has been experienced by crustal blocks within and adjacent to the Colorado Plateau? (2) Why is there disagreement between the apparent polar wander (APW) path constructed using poles from southwestern North America and the alternative path based on poles from eastern North America? Regarding (1), a 10.5° clockwise rotation of the Colorado Plateau about a pole located near 35°N, 102°W seems to fit the evidence best. Regarding (2), it appears that some rock units from the Appalachian region retain a hard overprint acquired during the mid-Cretaceous, when the geomagnetic field had constant normal polarity and APW was negligible.

We found three well-defined small-circle APW tracks: 245–200 Ma (PEP at 39.2°N, 245.2°E, R=81.1°, root mean square error (RMS)=1.82°), 200–160 Ma (38.5°N, 270.1°E, R=80.4°, RMS=1.06°), 160 to ∼125 Ma (45.1°N, 48.5°E, R=60.7°, RMS=1.84°). Intersections of these tracks (the “cusps” of Gordon et al. [Tectonics 3 (1984) 499]) are located at 59.6°N, 69.5°E (the 200 Ma or “J1” cusp) and 48.9°N, 144.0°E (the 160 Ma or “J2” cusp). At these times, the absolute velocity of North America appears to have changed abruptly.

North America absolute motion also changed abruptly at the beginning and end of the Cretaceous APW stillstand, currently dated at about 125 and 88 Ma (J. Geophys. Res. 97 (1992b) 19651). During this interval, the APW path degenerates into a single point, implying rotation about an Euler pole coincident with the spin axis.

Using our PEP and cusp locations, we calculate the absolute motion of seven points on the North American continent. Our intention is to provide a chronological framework for the analysis of Mesozoic tectonics. Clearly, if APW is caused by plate motion, abrupt changes in absolute motion should correlate with major tectonic events. This follows because large accelerations reflect important changes in the balance of forces acting on the plate, the most important of which are edge effects (subduction, terrane accretion, etc.). Some tectonic interpretations: (1) The J1 cusp may be associated with the inception of rifting of North America away from land masses to the east; the J2 cusp seems to mark the beginning of rapid spreading in the North Atlantic. (2) The J2 cusp signals the beginning of a period of rapid northwestward absolute motion of western North America; motion of tectonostratigraphic terranes in the westernmost Cordillera seems likely to have been directed toward the south during this interval. (3) The interval ∼88 to ∼80 Ma saw a rapid decrease in the paleolatitude of North America; unless this represents a period of true polar wander, terrane motion during this time should have been relatively northward.