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Ion-probe U–Pb dating of authigenic and detrital opal from Neogene-Quaternary alluvium

January 1, 2013

Knowing depositional ages of alluvial fans is essential for many tectonic, paleoclimatic, and geomorphic studies in arid environments. The use of U–Pb dating on secondary silica to establish the age of Neogene-Quaternary clastic sediments was tested on samples of authigenic and detrital opal and chalcedony from depths of ∼25 to 53 m in boreholes at Midway Valley, Nevada. Dating of authigenic opal present as rinds on rock clasts and in calcite/silica cements establishes minimum ages of alluvium deposition; dating of detrital opal or chalcedony derived from the source volcanic rocks gives the maximum age of sediment deposition.

Materials analyzed included 12 samples of authigenic opal, one sample of fracture-coating opal from bedrock, one sample of detrital opal, and two samples of detrital chalcedony. Uranium–lead isotope data were obtained by both thermal ionization mass spectrometry and ion-microprobe. Uranium concentrations ranged from tens to hundreds of μg/g. Relatively large U/Pb allowed calculation of 206Pb/238U ages that ranged from 1.64±0.36 (2σ) to 6.16±0.50 Ma for authigenic opal and from 8.34±0.28 to 11.2±1.3 Ma for detrital opal/chalcedony. Three samples with the most radiogenic Pb isotope compositions also allowed calculation of 207Pb/235U ages, which were concordant with 206Pb/238U ages from the same samples.

These results indicate that basin development at Midway Valley was initiated between about 8 and 6 Ma, and that the basin was filled at long-term average deposition rates of less than 1 cm/ka. Because alluvium in Midway Valley was derived from adjacent highlands at Yucca Mountain, the low rates of deposition determined in this study may imply a slow rate of erosion of Yucca Mountain. Volcanic strata underlying the basin are offset by a number of buried faults to a greater degree than the relatively smooth-sloping bedrock/alluvium contact. These geologic relations indicate that movement on most faults ceased prior to erosional planation and burial. Therefore, ages of the authigenic opal from basal alluvium indicate that the last movement on buried faults was older than about 6 Ma.