Subduction zones drive plate tectonics on Earth, yet subduction initiation and the related upper plate depositional and structural kinematics remain poorly understood because upper plate records are rare and often strongly overprinted by magmatism and deformation. During the late Paleozoic time, Laurentia’s western margin was truncated by a sinistral strike-slip fault that transformed into a subduction zone. Thick Permian strata in the Inyo Mountains of central-eastern California record this transition. Two basins that were separated by a transpressional antiform contain sedimentary lithofacies that record distinct patterns of shoaling and deepening conditions before and during tectonism associated with subduction initiation. Sandstone petrography and lithofacies analysis show that rocks in a southeastern basin are dominated by carbonate grains derived from adjacent carbonate shelves, whereas sandstones in a northwestern basin are predominantly quartzose with likely derivation from distant ergs or underlying strata. Detrital zircon spectra from all but the youngest strata in both basins are typical of Laurentian continent spectra with prominent peaks that indicate ultimate sources in Appalachia, Grenville, Yavapai/Mazatzal, and the Wyoming or Superior cratons. The first Cordilleran arc-derived detrital zircon grains appear in the uppermost strata of the northwestern basin and record Late Permian (ca. 260 Ma) Cordilleran arc magmatism at this approximate latitude, and a possible source area is suggested by geochemical similarities between these detrital zircons and broadly coeval magmatic zircons in the El Paso Mountains to the southwest. Deformation responsible for basin partitioning is consistent with sinistrally oblique contraction in the earliest Permian time. The data presented from the Inyo Mountains shed more light on the nature of Cordilleran subduction initiation and the upper-crustal response to this transition.
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