Caribbean Arc Revised Geological History Affecting Circum-Caribbean Petroleum Exploration*
Search and Discovery Article #30056 (2008)
Posted June 6, 2008
*Adapted from extended abstract prepared for presentation at AAPG Annual Convention, San Antonio, Texas, April 20-23, 2008.
1Geoclastica Ltd, Marlborough, United Kingdom
Conventionally, a "Great Arc of the Caribbean" (Burke, 1988), fronting the Caribbean Plate, is interpreted to have been smeared along the south and north margins (respectively) of North and South America by eastward oblique obduction, driving diachronous, Cenozoic, hydrocarbon-producing foreland basins (Pindell and Kennan, 2001, summarizing interpretations of Pindell and coauthors since 1982). This model requires dynamically improbable sideways (N, S) expansion of the relatively E-migrating Caribbean Plate into the Yucatan and Falcon reentrants (cf. Figure 1E).
Revised Model: Paleo-Cuban, Neo-Cuban, and Caribbean Arcs
A more plausible model is that Cuban volcanics assigned to the "Great Arc" by Burke (1988) and by most later workers belonged instead to two other arcs. The first was a Cretaceous intra-oceanic arc for which the name Paleo-Cuban Arc is proposed (Figure 1C; Higgs, in review, a). This NE-SW arc bisected a vanished Inter-Americas Ocean (IAO) produced by Jurassic-Cretaceous spreading (Pangea breakup; Figure 1A, B). This arc was formed by northwestward subduction of IAO lithosphere, and was thereby eventually (Campanian) obducted onto the Cuba microcontinent. The latter, previously attached to Venezuela-Trinidad (Bartok, 1993) as part of a proposed Chortis- Greater Antilles Superterrane (Figure 1A-C; Higgs, in review, a, b), became detached by Proto-Caribbean spreading in Santonian-Campanian time, after protracted rifting (Figures 1A-C; Higgs, 2008a, 2008b).
The second, Neo-Cuban Arc (Figure 1D), was built on Cuba in Maastrichtian- Paleogene time, by southeastward subduction of the former marginal sea (remnant of IAO) behind (NW of) the Paleo-Cuban Arc. Development of the Neo-Cuban Arc, including interarc rifting/spreading in the west to form the Yucatan Basin, ended with diachronous Maastrichtian-Paleogene accretion of the Greater Antilles Terrane against North America (Figure 1D, E).
A third arc, for which the name “Caribbean Arc” is proposed (Higgs, in review, a), was initiated in Campanian time and had nothing to do with Cuba (Figure 1D). The Caribbean Arc migrated east, relative to the Americas, by Proto-Caribbean subduction (Figure 1C-F). This arc originated by polarity reversal at the preceding Inter-American Arc (Pindell and Kennan, 2003; Figure 1C). An Aptian reversal age is widely accepted, following Pindell and Dewey (1982), but in the new model this is too old, predating the lithosphere (Proto-Caribbean, Santonian-Campanian) whose subduction produced the arc. In contrast, Campanian reversal (Duncan and Hargraves, 1984; Burke, 1988) coincides not only with the ending of Americas divergence (Pindell et al., 1988), but also with the onset of Proto-Caribbean amagmatic subduction (Search and Discovery Article #2008a, Triassic-Recent development), suggesting a comprehensive Campanian plate reorganization.
The Caribbean Arc initially migrated northeastward relative to southern North America (Figure 1D, inset). Plate interaction was therefore nearly pure strike slip from Maastrichtian until Eocene time, except at a releasing reentrant on Nicaragua Rise, resulting in transtension there (Figure 1E, F), forming the Mosquitia-Cayos Basin. Meanwhile in South America, where Proto-Caribbean subduction was underway in Venezuela from Campanian time and in Colombia from Paleocene time (Higgs, 2008a), Caribbean relative motion was eastward along the NE-trending Colombia margin, causing Amaime-Ruma forearc nappe oblique obduction (Maastrichtian-Eocene; Figure 1E). The nappe suture point migrated NE, shadowed by a NE-lengthening "backthrust" subduction zone outboard of the nappe, accommodating continued plate convergence (Figure 1E; Pindell and Erikson, 1994).
In latest Eocene time (c. 35 Ma), the Caribbean Arc, or more precisely the forearc frontal edge, reached "Guajira corner" (Figure 1E, beside Falcon reentrant). At or near this point, Caribbean relative motion changed from E to SE (Figure 1F, inset). Arc motion was thus southeastward along the SE-trending Falcon margin (i.e., near parallel; Figure 1F), forming the Gulf of Venezuela- Falcon Basin (Oligocene-Lower Miocene), interpreted as a transform-related transtensional basin complex (Higgs, in review, a), rather than a pull-apart formed on obducted Caribbean nappe basement after the Caribbean Arc had already passed (Muessig, 1978). Beyond Falcon, at the ENE-trending central Venezuela-Trinidad margin, Caribbean Arc relative motion (SE) was dextrally transpressive, causing a second episode of forearc nappe diachronous obduction (Villa de Cura-Rinconada-Tobago), from middle Miocene to Pliocene time. Nappe loading in both cases produced an E-younging Caribbean foreland basin, diachronously superceding a cratonward-verging Proto-Caribbean foreland basin (Higgs, 2008b).
In southern North America, Caribbean relative motion throughout this period (35-2.5 Ma) was transtensional, forming the Cayman Trough, disrupting the previously accreted Greater Antilles Terrane (Figure 1F; Higgs, in review, a). No Caribbean Arc accretion onto North America occurred, in contrast to the diachronously accreted "Great Arc" model.
Near 2.5 Ma, Caribbean-South America relative motion changed to E-W (Higgs, 2008b, 5-0 Ma development). Relative to North America, Caribbean motion shifted from ESE to ENE. The northern plate boundary therefore became, and remains, purely strike slip in the west (Cayman Trough), and transpressive in the east, causing uplift in Hispaniola and Puerto Rico.
Importantly for Circum-Caribbean oil exploration (Pindell, 1991), the new model necessitates revisions to the perceived mechanism and/or age of subsidence in numerous basins, affecting predicted sand fairways, subsidence (maturation) histories, etc.
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