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Know (all!) your assumptions, investigate the sensitivities: Towards more rigorous thermal history modeling practices
  • Kendra Murray,
  • Nathan Niemi
Kendra Murray
Idaho State University

Corresponding Author:[email protected]

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Nathan Niemi
University of Michigan
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Thermal history models are interpretive tools that incorporate data from chronometers and implement the published kinetics in the context of independent constraints on a sample’s known geologic history, in order to explore specific gaps in geologic knowledge. Despite their central role in the interpretation of thermochronologic datasets, our community has no standards for what characterizes a “robust” thermal history model result, how a model result’s rigor can and should be demonstrated, and how to communicate the key layers of interpretation produce a preferred thermal (and geologic) history. As a result, and through no fault of any one study or modeling program, published models are a patchwork of modeling philosophies, assumptions, and auxiliary hypotheses that are rarely sufficiently explored—to the frustration of authors, reviewers, and readers. This patchwork can give rise to conflicting conclusions and generate apparent controversies that distract from the geologic questions at hand. Therefore, our community needs to both embrace a diversity of modeling approaches and collectively discuss and set broad expectations for what constitutes thermal history modeling best practices. Here, we argue that the fundamental characteristic of any robust thermal history model result is that it is accompanied by a clear articulation of the “why”—e.g., the reason(s) that a model produces a distinctive history, be it the power of a geologic constraint, a grain’s age, a spatial relationship between samples, the choice of kinetic model, etc. We demonstrate this approach using (U-Th)/He data from basement rocks in the Front Range, CO, which when modeled require a distinctive Neoproterozoic thermal history: heating to 235-280°C after ca. 650 Ma and then cooling to <60°C during Paleozoic time. We demonstrate “why” through a suite of models that add, modify, and remove geologic constraints and data from the preferred model. We find that a heating event is required to produce the observed zircon He age-[eU] trend because (1) there is no more than ~600 My of radiation damage accumulated in the zircon crystals, (2) the geologic record places the samples at the surface prior to 650 Ma, and (3) published Ar ages require that these rocks were colder than ~250˚C for most of the last 1.5 Gy. By identifying these key factors, our sensitivity test facilitates comparisons to other studies and directs further discussion to how confident we are in the parts of our data and model set-up that produce this distinctive result. More broadly, this exercise demonstrates one of the challenges of deep-time thermochronology: the potential to accumulate multiple auxiliary assumptions that control the model result in ways that are not obvious, even to the experienced model user, without deliberate exploration of alternative solutions—further underscoring the need for more open discussion of this topic.