Sediment provenance and silicic volcano-tectonic evolution of the northern East African Rift System from U/Pb and (U-Th)/He laser ablation double dating of detrital zircons

Emily E. Zawacki, Matthijs C. van Soest, Kip V. Hodges, Jennifer J. Scott, Mélanie Barboni, Manfred R. Strecker, Craig S. Feibel, Christopher J. Campisano, J. Ramón Arrowsmith

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4 Scopus citations


Detrital zircons from two major rift basins within the East African Rift System (EARS) provide a means to evaluate not only sediment provenance and landscape dynamics in sedimentary basins, but also the timing of the silicic volcano-tectonic evolution of the rift system. We sampled from drill cores collected by the Hominin Sites and Paleolakes Drilling Project (HSPDP) in Ethiopia and Kenya to study the detrital mineral records of the Northern Awash (NA; 3.3–2.9 Ma) and West Turkana (WTK; 1.9–1.4 Ma) drill cores. We performed (U-Th)/He and U/Pb analyses on detrital zircons using single crystal laser ablation double dating (LADD) techniques. Analyses of four NA samples yielded zircon 206Pb/238U dates younger than ∼45 Ma, consistent with derivation from silicic volcanic rocks associated with EARS activity. Most of these samples lack zircon 206Pb/238U dates from ∼22–13 Ma, due to a decrease in silicic volcanism and a watershed configuration limiting delivery of silicic source materials to the sample site. NA zircon 206Pb/238U dates imply a sedimentary source from the western Afar margin, with a transition to more localized sediment reworking within the Afar Depression after a major regional tectonic reorganization and formation of a disconformity at ∼2.9 Ma. The WTK sample yielded many zircons with Cenozoic 206Pb/238U dates similar to those from the NA core, but the WTK sample also sources a small population of Neoproterozoic zircons associated with rocks from the Mozambique Belt and reworked sedimentary deposits. Despite being recorders of predominantly silicic activity, the detrital zircon U/Pb dates from both drill sites track the established timing of major volcanic phases in the EARS. A subset of zircons from both sites has concordant 206Pb/238U and (U-Th)/He dates, indicating a short duration between zircon crystallization and eruption of the host volcanic rock, but the majority of zircon (U-Th)/He dates are significantly younger than the 206Pb/238U dates for the same zircon. Some (U-Th)/He dates are even younger than the depositional age of the sedimentary sample from which it was collected. The observed spread in zircon (U-Th)/He dates likely reflects partial resetting associated with late mafic volcanism and/or hydrothermal activity within this dynamic rift environment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number117375
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
StatePublished - Feb 15 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Mark Shapley, Emma Burnett, Pawel Kuczaj, and Tara Berglund for their contributions to the identification and interpretation of sedimentary injectites and other sedimentary indicators of hydrothermal activity. We thank the Ledi-Geraru Research Project team for helpful discussions. We thank Samuel Boone, Cynthia Ebinger, and Chris Morley for their helpful and constructive comments on this manuscript. Initial core processing and sampling were conducted at the US National Lacustrine Core Facility (LacCore) at the University of Minnesota. We thank HSPDP PI Andy Cohen and the numerous members of the NA and WTK initial core sampling team and field team, including the people of the Nariokotome and Mille regions. Funding for the HSPDP NA and WTK sites was provided by the International Continental Drilling Program (ICDP), and the NSF (Grants EAR-1123942 , BCS-1241859 , and EAR-1338553 ). This is publication number 49 of the Hominin Sites and Paleolakes Drilling Project.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 Elsevier B.V.


  • detrital zircon
  • East African Rift
  • hydrothermal alteration
  • laser ablation double dating

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