Sunday, August 20, 2017

Iguazú Falls of South America: Part I - A Billion Year Tale of Global Tectonics and Geological Evolution of the Paraná Basin and Volcanic Plateau

"Let your soul be satisfied
with the odd beauty of this landscape
that although the world you travel
you'll never find anything like this."
First stanza of Garganta del Diablo by Alfonso Ricciuto, 1950s

Whether obvious or abstruse, there's often more than meets the eye to a given landscape or landform. Investigating its geologic history regionally and even globally invariably adds a depth of color that goes far beyond the visual and enriches one's understanding of the natural forces at work that shape our planet. Such is the case with Iguazú Falls of South America. This post is dedicated to Wayne Ranney, who taught me how to appreciate what I can see and what I can't.

Straddling Rio Iguazú that forms the border between southeastern Brazil and northwestern Argentina is a semicircular waterfall of astounding proportions and incomparable beauty. Composed of Early Cretaceous basaltic magma that blanketed the Paraná Basin's vast and thick Paleozoic sediments, Iguazú Falls is a very recent addition on the landscape in geological terms, having formed in the Pleistocene. 

And yet, its geomorphology, which is simple in construction, is the interaction and culmination of a complex succession of large-scale tectonic and regional geologic events that spanned more than a billion years of Earth history, and involved the assembly and break-up of three supercontinents. This is its evolutionary story from the bottom up in space and time.

The Falls of Iguazú from the Upper Circuit
 Iguazú Falls is the second most popular tourist attraction in South America after Machu Picchu, drawing more than one million visitors annually. Here's a fantastic video of the Iguazú Falls taken from a drone.

This is Part I of a two-part post in which I summarize the evolution of the Paraná Basin from its Rodinian roots in the late Precambrian through its transition from a West Gondwanan depocenter in the Paleozoic to a pre-rift Pangaean large igneous province in the Cretaceous. 

Part II, forthcoming, discusses various theories on the continental rifting process that separated the once-unified Paraná-Etendeka Volcanic Province of Western Gondwana and the hypothesized association between large igneous provinces and mass extinction events. It ends with a discussion of the acquisition of Iguazú Fall's geomorphology with a glimpse into the surrounding rainforest's rich and colorful biodiverse flora and fauna. 

Pertinent definitions are italicized, important names are emphasized in bold and references are provided. Photographs were taken on a recent visit to Iguazú Falls in February 2017.

•  What geologic events culminated in the formation of Iguazú Falls across Río Iguazú in the Pleistocene? How did the Paraná Basin acquire its Proterozoic foundation, Paleozoic sedimentary supersequences, Mesozoic volcanics and Cenozoic epeirogeny? How did each acquisition influence those that followed?

•  What promoted the emanation of continental flood basalts of the Serra Geral Formation across the basin? Why are they largely basaltic? What is the relationship of the Paraná Volcanic Province in South America to its trans-Atlantic counterpart, the Etendeka Province in Africa? Did its emplacement cause a mass extinction similar in global-scale to that suggested of other Large Igneous Provinces ? If so, how? If not, why? 

•  What triggered rifting between the South American and Africa plates during the break-up of West Gondwana? What accounts for uplift and segmentation of the Paraná Basin? Was the timing related to the onset of surface volcanism? What does it suggest about magma melting? Was it mantle plume-related or was it a plume-less, lithospheric process? What's the Tristan-Gough hotspot plume? Where is it now? Is it really there?

•  When did the Paraná fluvial system and its Iguazú tributary become organized? What is the relationship of the development of the river basin to the dismemberment of Gondwana? How does its tectonic framework control drainage patterns? Why did Río Iguazú choose a westerly course over three plateaus instead of emptying eastward into the Atlantic Ocean? 

•  Why does Rio Iguazú's channel dramatically change course below the falls and convert from shallow, wide and serpentine to narrow, deep and linear? Are there lithologic and/or structural contributing factors to the channel's evolution and the fall's geomorphology? How and when were they acquired? Where does all the iron in the region come from?

•  By what process of fluvial incision did the falls develop? How have knickpoint development, headward migration and channel-bed degradation been affected by the region's erosion-resistant bedrock? What is the fall's rate of regression, and where and when did it initiate? How does the genetic pattern and stratigraphy of Iguazú Falls compare to other great waterfalls? 

Iguazú Falls and Isla San Martín Facing East from the Upper Circuit on the Argentine Side

In regional native Tupi-Guarani, "Great Amount of Water" is thought to have been first seen by Europeans when the Spanish explorer of the New World Álvar Nuñes Cabeza de Vaca in 1542 baptized the falls Salto de Santa Maria. It was returned to its native name of Iguazú in Spanish and Iguaçu in Portuguese, pronounced yee-gwa-SOO. 

In 1944, "Poor Niagara!" was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt's purported response upon seeing the spectacular waterfalls for the first time. And yet, it's not the world's largest. Based on combined width and height, Victory Falls on the Zambezi River in southern Africa has that distinction. Iguazú is not the tallest. With an uninterrupted free fall, Angel Falls on a tributary of the Orinoco in Venezuela claims that title. Iguazú doesn't even possess the greatest rate of flow, ranked sixth below Boyoma Falls on the Lualaba River in the Congo. 

But, it is the widest, four times Niagara and has the highest flow rate, although variable. Most times, it plummets as much as 269 feet over some 275 individual cascades down a three-tiered, nearly two mile-wide, J-shaped escarpment. And at flood stage, the falls becomes a single mesmerizing wall of iron-stained, sediment-laden water. 

Indeed, Iguazú is arguably the planet's largest waterfall system. And, it's all on intimate display via a well-engineered system of metallic catwalks and balconies from both countries, a powerful Zodiac boat that plies the rapids below the falls or a helicopter for a thrilling bird's eye view. 

Where there's whitewater, there's always geology and adventure.
Inflatable Zodiac boats make their way up the turbulent waters of Rio Iguazú directly below the falls.

With roaring falls, iridescent rainbows, drenching mist, alligators in the river, noisy parrots and toucans, hawks and vultures flying overhead, curious monkeys howling in the jungle and exotic butterflies fluttering everywhere, it's a spectacular sensory display of nature that you can't get enough of. It's no surprise that over 1.5 million visitors pay homage to the falls annually.

Cataratas do Iguaçu in Portuguese or Cataratas del Iguazú in Spanish straddles Rio Iguazú on the border of the northwestern corner of the Argentine Province of Misiones and southwestern corner of the Brazilian state of Paraná in central-southeast South America. Two-thirds of the falls are on the Argentinian side and are within sister national parks of both countries, which were declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1984. 

Chosen by a global poll of 100 million votes in 2011, a confirmation of its enormous popularity, Iguazú Falls was elected to the list of man-made New7Wonders of the World (correct spelling) and is regarded as a distinctive Geomorphological Site by the Brazilian Commission of Geologic and Paleobiological Sites.

Copy the following co-ordinates into an on-line mapping program such as Google Earth and go to the Falls: 25°41'36.37"S, 54°26'16.33"W

The Paraná Fluvial System in South Central South America
The Paraná (dotted arrows) is South America's second largest river and merges first with the Paraguay River and the Uruguay further downstream. They reach the sea at the wide delta and estuary Rio de la Plata between Uruguay and Argentina. Rio Iguazú River, flowing inland, is one of the Paraná's main tributaries and lifeblood of Iguazú Falls (arrow). 
Modified from Kmusser image of Wikimedia Commons

The regional climate is humid subtropical with hot summers year-round (14 to 21 ºC). The falls is enveloped by a dense, intensely green, highly biodiverse rainforest, fed by abundant rainfall (1,275 to 2,250 mm/yr) that varies with season and is regionally drained by the large and complex system of the Rio Paraná and locally by Rio Iguazú. We'll take a closer look at the flora and fauna in post Part II.

Salto Bernabé Mendez, Adan y Eva and Bosetti
Iguazú Falls is composed of some 275 separately named waterfalls that meld into one great wall of thunderous water when flow is exceedingly high.

Iguazú River is the lifeblood of the eponymous falls and important tributary of Rio Paraná, which is second in length to the Amazon in South America and sixth largest in the world. With a drainage basin of some 78,800 sq km, Rio Iguazú rises near the Atlantic Ocean within the Serra do Mar range. But, rather than heading a short distance east to the sea, Rio Iguazú River chose a meandering westerly course over sedimentary and volcanic rocks of the uplifted, fault-segmented, cuesta escarpment-punctuated, three-plateaued, 
Paleozoic-Mesozoic Paraná Basin. 

Through rainforests and farmlands, it continues over many minor falls and rapids that are neo-tectonically re-activated NW-SE lineaments that date back to the origins and evolution of the basin - the subject of this post. Eventually, near the western side of the basin, the river reaches Iguazú Falls where its fury is dramatically unleashed as it plunges off the plateau.

Cross-sectional Schematic Model of the Iguazú River within the Paraná Basin
 From its source within the linear Serra do Mar coastal range above the Atlantic Ocean, the Iguazú River travels west to join the Paraná River after spilling off the uplifted Paraná Basin and Volcanic Plateau. The channel cuts through cuesta escarpments of the São Luiz do Purunã and Cadeado Ranges and in its middle and lower reaches over basalts of the Serra Geral Formation.
Modified from Marini and Xisto in MINEROPAR 2006 and Stevaux and Latrubesse 2010

Although subtropical, unlike many other South American rivers where annual temperature variations are relatively limited, the volume, color and content of Iguazú's waters vary considerably with season. During the summer rains from October to March (the reverse of the North Hemisphere), the river swells within its channel and may become sediment-saturated with silt and clay from basaltic red soils, iron-stained due to oxidation of mafic minerals - largely hte minerals pyroxene and feldspar. During massive discharge, the river can completely obliterate the falls within a single massive wall of murky-brown water.  

Wide, Calm and Turbid, a Swollen Rio Iguazú Approaches the Falls in the Wet Season

In the dry, winter season from April to July, Rio Iguazú transports a low quantity of suspended particulates, running clear or slightly greenish and unhurried within a moderately wide, basalt-floored, shallow channel across the gently downwest-sloping Paraná Plateau. To the joy of the millions that have visited it, most times the falls are richly endowed and spill off the Paraná plateau at about 1,500 cu ft/s over nearly 300 individual waterfalls carved into three tiers of basalt. It's a jaw-dropping spectacle for all the senses that you can't seem to get enough of!

During an extreme drought in May and June of 1978, the falls actually dried up completely for 28 days due to low flow. In contrast, 2014 rains in the Argentine and Brazilian regions of Misiones and Paraná reached historic levels that resulted in a flow rate of 46,300 cubic meters per second at the falls - 33 times the usual flow rate. The previous record of 36,000 was reached in 1992. Both times, officials were forced to close the catwalks around the falls for safety.

Iguazú Falls During Extreme Drought and Overflow of Biblical Proportions
Modified from

After spilling off the basalt plateau of the uplifted Paraná Basin, about 25 km below the falls Rio Iguazú becomes a left-hand tributary at the confluence with Rio Paraná, which is achieved at the Triple Frontier between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, after Rio Iguazú has traveled west some 1,320 km from its source. Right-hand tributaries are far shorter owing to the tilt and funneling action of the Paraná Basin. 

The Paraná River and Wide Floodplain below the Confluence with the Iguazú  River

Where does all that water go? Further downriver, Rio Paraná is joined by Rios Paraguay and then Rio Uruguay before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean at Rio de la Plata between Buenos Aires, Argentina and Montevideo, Uruguay.

From the shoreline of Buenos Aires, Rio de la Plata looks more like a placid lake than a river, if one allows its classification as such considering its abbreviated length of 290 km. Geographically, the estuary (where tides enter the mouth of the river) is either a gulf of the Atlantic or the world's widest river (256 km). Historically, the "River of Silver" was named for the assumed abundance of the mineral in the region, which is plentiful but brought downriver from only far inland from Bolivia, barely accessible by the Paraná tributary of Paraguay and best reached via the Amazon.

Summer Photo of Rio de la Plata from Space 
The Paraná River empties into the Rio de la Plata and southern Atlantic Ocean. The current forms a massive delta and carries a long plume of iron-stained sediments out to sea. Also delta-like in shape is the city of Buenos Aires, visible on the southern side of the river as is smaller Montevideo across the river on Uruguay's southern side. The Paraná's marshy floodplain and braided streams accompany the river through rich farmlands of Argentina. It's the largest wetland corridor in the world and extends well beyond Iguazú Falls in the north.
Modified from NASA's Visible Earth Catalog

Immediately above the falls, Rio Iguazú is referred to as Iguazú Superior as it flows over a number of small steps carved into the basaltic bedrock and skirts a few small islands set precariously in the channel. In the midst of initiating another meander, the channel dramatically widens to 1,500 m and shallows and begins a sweeping clockwise rotation, almost doubling back on itself. 

Iguazú Superior
Beyond the small island which is a haven for parrots and toucans, the Throat of the Devil sends a plume of mist skyward that can be seen from space and easily mistaken for a low cloud.

As the river churns and skirts the various islands and islets above the falls, it roils and aerates to the joy of a myriad of tropical birds and butterflies that find it a shady sanctuary for retreat and a meal.

Plush-crested Jay
With piercing yellow eyes below a swatch of blue and a breast to match, Cyanocorax chrysops is a member of the jay family along with crows and plentiful in central-southern South America including the Amazon. There are 300 to 400 species of tropical birds and over 2,000 species of plants in the region.

On the verge of a precipitous drop, the river begins to violently swirl and froth as it quickens its pace, perhaps sensing what's to come. Studies of fluvial dynamics and waterfall evolution imply that flow rate and parameters such as knickpoint migration (the sharp change in channel slope) are related to the amplitude of the base level drop and other factors. More on fluvial dynamics and waterfall geomorphology in post Part II.

Frothy, brilliant white and churning every which way, the river plunges over over three tiers of vesicular basalt that follow a huge 2.7 km arc from Argentina to Brazil, while sending a cloud of spray skyward that's visible from space. At the brink, a large portion of Iguazú Superior converges into an enormous mist-shrouded, thunderous funnel that's 230 feet high. Called Garganta del Diablo in Spanish or Throat of the Devil, it curiously aligns with the strike of the river channel and gorge downstream from the falls, best seen from the air or map view.

Staring into the Throat of the Devil
Almost shouting to be heard, the spray is welcomed in the 90 degree heat.

Below the falls, Iguazú Inferior nearly completes a hair-pin reversal of direction as its channel peculiarly becomes linear within a narrow (~80-90 m) and deep canyon (~70 m) that is steeper along the north, right bank and more gradual on the south. Waters spilling off the Paraná plateau also formed the seven spectacular falls of Guairá upstream on the Parana River within a narrow gorge. A large regional attraction, in 1984, with great local disapproval, the falls were controversially submerged within the Itaipu Falls and Hydroelectric Dam, the largest in the world. 

The Region of Iguazú Falls
With a plume at the falls visible from space (depending on altitude), the broad serpentine channel above Iguazú Falls undertakes a dramatic reversal of direction, while below the falls, it constricts into a narrow gorge that strikes linearly away from the plume of the Devil's Throat. The confluence of the Paraná River and Iguazú tributary form the border between three countries, while upstream the latter separates two. The region around Iguazú Falls has succumbed to deforestation, agriculture and human settlement (color computer-enhanced). Sharply delineated, Argentina and Brazil have notably set aside park land, whereas, Paraguay has permitted development in the last couple decades.
Modified from 2001 NASA Earth Observatory image

What structural aspects of the bedrock caused the river to nearly double back on itself and contribute to the river's distinctive channel morphology? What accounts for the step-like tiers of bedrock and the formation of the Devil's Throat? What is the regional and large-scale geologic explanation for the waterfall's evolution? How did the assembly and break-up of each of three supercontinent's contribute to the falls' geomorphology?

The Three Tiers of Iguazú Falls and its Linear Downfalls Gorge
Facing south-southwest, three massive steps of Iguazú Falls are clearly visible as is the sweeping change of direction that river makes on its approach to the falls. Below the falls, a narrow gorge strikes linearly away from the mist-enshrouded plunge basin of Garganta di Diablo. Elliptical-shaped Isla di San Martin is midriver below the falls. The red roofed hotel and promontory are in Brazil, while everything else is Argentina.
From Wikimedia Commons

Native Guarani legend tells us that Iguazú Falls originated when members of the ancient Cainguengue tribe sacrificed a young girl during their annual ritual to appease the serpent god Mboi, son of Tupa, who lived in the river. Several tribes came to witness the event, which is how the young warrior Tarobá met the current offering Naipi, the beautiful daughter of Cacique Igobi. Tarobá pleaded that she be spared, but his requests were denied. To escape, the lovers fled downstream by canoe on the River Iguazú.

Artist's Depiction of Naipi and her warrior lover Tarobá
Image from Iguazú Falls Tours, artist unknown.

Enraged, Mboi sliced the river in two to prevent their union. The depression that formed created the falls and swallowed the young lovers in the deluge. As punishment, they were transformed into the landscape, Naipi turning to stone bathed by the waters of the river and Tarobá into a palm tree along its banks. Their fate was separation for an eternity, ever forcing them to gaze at one another from afar. It is only when the sun desires to shine that their loving hearts join with a rainbow that signifies their reunion. 

Of course, geologists entertain a less mythological perspective. The evolution of Iguazú Falls is not merely the immediate consequence of erosion of the underlying strata that dictates its geomorphology but the culmination of large-scale, global events that produced the region's distinctive volcanic plateau. 

That said, let's travel back in time a billion years to the acquisition of the region's oldest assumed basement foundation on a hypothesized supercontinent long gone. Where reconstructions, relationships and timing have been the subject of ongoing debate, I've tried to reflect the views of the consensus.

We begin in the Middle to Late Proterozoic with supercontinent of Rodinia and continue with its continental successors, Gondwana and Pangaea. The transition proceeds according to the Supercontinental Cycle that hypothesizes how all or most of the world's landmasses cyclically assemble, dissociate and reassemble every 600 to 800 Ma. It includes the acquisition of new crust and the closure of intervening ocean basins. The process is speculated to influence biogeochemical cycles, which enhances biological productivity, biodiversity and alters the course of evolution. 

Each supercontinent in the succession is geomorphologically and compositionally unique, yet each retains within its core elements of the parent continent that preserves a long-term record of the Earth's history that was acquired from it. In a sense, it mimics the
genetic evolution of life as ancient building blocks are tectonically passed on to continental progeny in addition to newly acquired crust. Indeed, tectonics and evolution are related on many levels, the former providing the impetus for the latter. Driven by plate tectonics, the cycle is a fascinating concept - mimicking life and being responsible for its evolution!

The Late Proterozoic Supercontinent of Rodinia Superimposed on Modern Outlines
This proposed reconstruction, referred to as SWEAT, is one of numerous cratonic configurations based on the correlation of orogenic (mountain-forming) belts, passive margins, cratonic blocks, radiating dike swarms, LIPs and paleomagnetic data. It depicts the once-juxtaposed American Southwest and East Antarctica. Others include AUSWUS (Australia-Western U.S.) and AUSMEX (Australia-Mexico). All show Rodinia's core of Laurentia surrounded by cratons of Amazonia, West Africa, Rio de la Plata, São Francisco, Congo, Kalahari and Siberia. 

Modified from the SWEAT version of

First conceptualized to have existed in 1970, long-lived, pole-spanning, crescent-shaped and massive, Rodinia (a.k.a. Paleopangaea) is thought to have achieved final assembly through worldwide Grenvillian (an elongate mountain range spanning North America from Mexico to Labrador to Scandinavia) and related orogenic (mountain and continent-building events) during the Middle and Late Proterozoic (~1.3 Ga to 0.9 Ga). 

The process of plate tectonics is thought to have been shaping the planet for well over a billion years, possibly as much as three of its 4.6 billion-year history. Rodinia wasn't likely the first continent, although its predecessors were likely much smaller. Few doubt its existence, and no universal agreement exists regarding timing of assembly, its longevity, details of fragmentation, and the number and configuration of its constituent cratons (an interlocking Archean and Middle Proterozoic maze of basement-forming, rigid and stable crustal blocks). 

Relevant to our Iguazú discussion, the Paranapanema cratonic block (red ellipse) was an inherited remnant of a preceding continent that was incorporated within central Rodinia between ~1000 and 850 Ma. It likely was associated with neighboring cratons of Amazonia (which is definitely Rodinian in origin by consensus) and Río de la Plata, Kalahari and Congo-São Francisco (which are likely "Non-Rodinian" that may have assembled during Gondwana's earliest collisional events). 

In the Paleozoic within Gondwana, the successor supercontinent to Rodinia, the Paranapanema block would provide a stable foundation beneath a thick sequence of sedimentary rocks of the Paraná Basin, the location of Iguazú Falls.

Simplified Map of Cratonic Rodinia
The Paranapanema craton (encircled) lies within the core of the supercontinent and is in relative proximity with cratons of Amazonia, Rio de la Plata, Kalahari and Congo-São Francisco. Although explicit reconstructions of Rodinia before assembly, during and after disassembly remain mired in controversy due to limited geologic and paleomagnetic constraints, a number of feasible scenarios exist for its crustal components. 

Modified from Li et al

After 150 million years of gradual accretionary cratonic assembly, Rodinia began to progressively break apart according to the hypothesized Supercontinental Cycle. It was a protracted (100-plus Ma) and diachronous (age varying from place to place) process. Rifting first occurred at its western margin (present co-ordinates) possibly as early as ~750 Ma and then southeast about the same time with complete break-up after ~600 Ma. 

Mechanically and geothermally unstable and attributed by most to the presence of a mantle plume (or even the absence of one, stuff for post Part II), Rodinia rifted apart and spawned a flotsam and jetsam of landmasses both large and small separated by newly opened seas as they tectonically drifted across the globe. 

Surrounded by the Panthalassa Ocean (a.k.a. proto-Pacific), the two largest were equatorically-situated Laurentia (North America's cratonic core) and australly-situated Gondwana (a South Pole-sprawling, massive parent to the continents of the Southern Hemisphere). The two mega-continents and sundry smaller micro-continents were separated by a widening Iapetus Ocean, named after the mythical Greek titan who fathered Atlas. The eponymous Atlantic Ocean would become the Iapetus successor, but first worldwide ocean closures and supercontinental re-assemblages would have to occur. 

Rodinia During its Demise in the mid-Late Proterozoic
The Paranapanema cratonic block is South Polar in locale. One of many reconstructions, a waning Rodinia is surrounded by waters of the global Panthalassic Ocean. Its fragmentation led to the opening of the Iapetus Ocean between Gondwana, the continent of Baltica and Laurentia.

Modified from the Paleontology

Gondwana is frequently referred to as a megacontinent or superterrane, since it not only formed in a shorter interval but didn't include all global landmasses. Regardless, it was the largest continental unit at the time and remained that way for over 200 Ma, spanning all southern paleolatitudes from the South Pole to over 20°N for most of the Paleozoic. It formed from the unification of over ten Precambrian cratons and covered almost 100 million sq km with remnants constituting 64% of all present-day land areas including the present-day continents of South America, Africa, most of Antarctica and Australia, Madagascar and India. 

Another cycle contradiction, even in the final stages of Rodinia disassembly Gondwana had already begun to assemble in the latest Late Proterozoic and earliest Cambrian. It was largely together by ~600 Ma, although oceans (that would eventually close) still existed between Australia-East Antarctica, India and eastern Africa. Gondwana finally amalgamated by ~540-530 Ma. 

Like its parent, Gondwana assembled from a collage of cratonic nuclei largely acquired from Rodinia (which were relics of older landmasses) and from newly-acquired crust as intervening oceanic domains closed. During the process, Rodinia's Paranapanema craton was a passive tectonic passenger that participated with numerous other cratons in Gondwana's assembly. In this manner, the future foundation of the Paraná Basin of Iguazú Falls transferred from Rodinia to Gondwana and will do so twice more!

Cratons of Fragmenting Rodinia and Assembling Gondwana
The transition from a disassembling Rodinia to an assembled Gondwana occurred in stages over the course of some 200 million years. Rodinia (left) rifted apart at many fronts with numerous block rotations (~750 to 650 Ma). West and East Gondwana (right) assembled along a number of subduction zones (~650 to 550 Ma). The arrow (right) indicates the hypothesized location of the Paraná Basin (arrows).
Modified from the Council for Geoscience Field School blog

As with Rodinia, although the precise configuration and mechanisms of assembly are the subject of great ongoing debate, paleomagnetism and geochronology confirm that East Gondwana (yellow Australia, India, Madagascar and Antarctica, blue) and West 
Gondwana (largely South America, Africa and Arabia, blue) unified through a succession of collisions and ocean closures via the consolidating Pan-African and Brasiliano orogenies.

Reminiscent of Rodinia's jigsaw-puzzle, building block construction, West Gondwana was an interlocking maze of cratonic blocks, shields (exposed, eroded Precambrian cratons) and mobile belts (ill-defined mountain-building, continent-unifying orogenies). 

A West and East Unified Gondwana and Late Proterozoic Orogenic Belts (~800 Ma)
Rodinia's Paranapanema craton and others are grouped within central West Gondwana. 
Building on this foundation, the Paraná sedimentary basin (arrow) is poised to undergo a dramatic transformation between the Late Ordovician and Late Cretaceous. The superimposed outline of the majority of modern South Hemispheric continents is clearly visible. Numerous orogenic mobile belts criss-cross the continent. Those associated with Gondwana's final assembly include the East African orogen (red), Brasiliano-Damara (blue) and Kuungan (green).
Modified from Meert and Lieberman

The cratonic mass contains a complex framework of faults, lineaments (linear surface features) and discontinuities (crustal structural changes that reflect bedding, faults, etc.) that influenced sedimentation patterns due to differential subsidence and uplift of the blocks. Many of the faults persisted within the crust and later tectonically reactivated. 

Over time, cratonic relationships have remained fairly constant (note the yet-to-form Paraná Basin, arrow) during the evolution of West Gondwana, Pangaea and present-day South America within the tectonically stable, Precambrian-cellared South America platform of the eponymous tectonic plate. 

Three First-order Tectonic Provinces of South America
The Paraná Basin (arrow) and its cratonic affiliates occupy the South American platform (ellipse). It's the oldest, stable portion of the South American plate with a Precambrian crustal foundation. 
In South America, Paleozoic sediments are largely preserved in five individual basins, four in Brazil and one in Argentina. The Brazilian basins are named after the large rivers that flow along their major axes and cover an area of about 3,200,000 sq km - Solimões, Amazonas, Parnaíba and Paraná. The Patagonian platform in the south is thought to have formed independently (allochthonous) in the late Paleozoic or as a Late Proterozoic precursor of Gondwana that re-amalgamated with West Gondwana (parallochthonous). The Andean Cordillera in the west and northern Caribbean Mountain provinces uplifted following Nazca and Caribbean plate subduction in the Cretaceous-Neogene. Only indirectly did they affect the SA Platform.
Modified from Chulick et al

Evolution of the Paraná Basin, the location of Iguazú Falls, was markedly influenced by the geodynamics of the southwestern region of Gondwana when it was subjected to a nearly continuous succession of orogenies of subducting oceanic lithosphere. In fact, a defining tectonic feature of Gondwana was the establishment of a peripheral subduction system that has arguably existed ever since.

Yet, Gondwana's stable continental interior and cratons remained relatively undistorted and undisturbed, even during the break-up and dispersal of Rodinia. In spite of this, their morphology was influenced by extensional regimes that resulted in their conversion to large sag basins. Also referred to as cratonicintracratonic, interior and intercontinental basins, they are characterized by rapid subsidence and mainly siliciclastic deposition (non-carbonate, sandstone-based eroded rocks) with support conferred by a stable and rigid foundation - the Paranparema in the case of the Paraná Basin!

Simplified Cross-section of a Cratonic Sag Basin
They form on deep roots of stable lithosphere and are thought to experience extensional stress during and after supercontinental break-up. Major fault systems often form the boundaries of the depositional area. It has been suggested that many lie at the tips of failed rifts that extend into the continental plate and possibly formed by downwarping due to decreased mantle heat flow above a "cold spot." Subsidence occurs predominantly in response to moderate crustal thinning or to a slightly higher density of the underlying crust in comparison to neighboring areas. Modified from Zhou et al

Cratonic basins are long-lived, circular or oval and saucer-shaped in cross-section with extents on the order of a few hundred thousand to a few million square kilometers. Marginal West Gondwanan collisions produced internal continental extension that induced flexural downwarping of the basins that created accommodation space for massive but gradual sedimentation. 

Contingent on tectonics and climate, the Paraná Basin filled with ~3–6 km of mostly shallow marine and terrestrially-derived, layer-cake sediments that include estuarine and lacustrine, marginal and epeiric seas (shallow-shelf marine) with shales, limestones, aeolian sandstones and even glacially derived diamictites.

Sag basins are some of the largest sedimentary basins on Earth. They cover over 10% of its continental surfaces and are abundant on the four continents that border the Atlantic domain (below). Inboard of passive margins, they often bear epeiric connections to the sea via failed rifts or even failed arms of triple junctions. 

With all that is known, many aspects of origins and dynamics remain enigmatic such as their mantle associations.  A large number of mechanisms have been invoked to their formation such as thermal contraction following heating, extension related to magmatic upwelling, deep crustal phase changes, reactivation of pre-existing sags, emplacement of basaltic underplates and the subduction of 'cold' oceanic slabs.  

Attention is directed to the Paraná Basin (pink PAR) in south-central South America.

Global Distribution of Typical Cratonic Basins Surrounding the Atlantic Ocean
Basins are color-coding according to the timing of initiation.
Modified from Philip A. Allen et al

The Paraná Basin (encircled) initiated within the core of Gondwana subsequent to the break-up of Rodinia, as have many other cratonic basins worldwide, and continued forming within its supercontinental successor, Gondwana. Northern Canada's Hudson Bay is a familiar example of a large cratonic basin in North America encircled by rocks of the Canadian shield. The Anglo-Paris Basin is another in western Europe, delivered to the continent subsequent to Pangaea's break-up (read my blog post here about it).

Selected Cratonic Basins Showing Timing of Basin-fill during Two Phanerozoic Tectonic Cycles
It appears their formation 
bears a relationship to the break-up and assembly of supercontinents, Gondwana and Pangaea in this example. West Gondwana's Paraná Basin (encircled) experienced Ordovician to Early Triassic sedimentation after the rifting apart of Rodinia. Tres Lagoas basalts (first blue line) of the Neo-Ordovician (~443 Ma) suggests a rift beneath the foundation of the basin or the passage of melts into its fractured basement. The eruption of Serra Geral basalts (second blue line) coincides with Pangaea's break-up. 
Modified from Philip A. Allen et al, 2012.

The Paraná and neighboring basins of West Gondwana's central platform began to form shortly after Gondwana's consolidation about 500 to 470 Ma. Elliptical in shape and named after the river system that flows through its central axis, the Paraná Basin strikes NNE-SSW and occupies a wide area of the central and eastern portion of South America. About 65% lies in the Brazilian state of Paraná with the remainder in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay (bottom left). 

The ~1.6 mil sq km and ~1,500 km wide depression classically represents the morphology of cratonic basins worldwide. Rather than viewed as a single entity, the Paraná consists of three superimposed basins (bottom right) that formed during the Silurian-Devonian, Permian and Jurassic-Cretaceous, although they were intermittently separate or linked with the Chaco-Paraná Basin to the west across the Asuncion Arch. The Paraná Basin's protracted geologic history has greatly assisted in understanding the origin and evolution of both Gondwana and Pangaea!

Stratigraphy of the Paraná Basin and Historical Basin Outlines
A, Isopachs (stratal connecting points) of basin-fill reached >5 km in the basin center in a concentric pattern representative of the basin's geometry. B, Superimposed, three stages of basin outlines are shown for the Silurian-Devonian, Permian and Jurassic-Cretaceous. In the Early Paleozoic, the Paraná thickened toward the Asuncion Arch in the west, whereas the Permian and Mesozoic basins are concentric with an open corridor to the sea. The location of the future Iguazú Falls.
From Zalan, 1990 and Philip A. Allen et al, 2012.

The Paraná Basin sedimentary origins began in the Late Ordovician (~450 Ma) when Gondwana was an insular supercontinent, continued when Gondwana participated in the formation of Pangaea in the late Paleozoic and ceased at the end of the Cretaceous (66 Ma) with widespread magmatism, which is typical of many cratonic basins. In the case of the Paraná, Early Cretaceous magmatism was a precursor to break-up of West Gondwana (and greater Pangaea) in the Mesozoic!

Its record consists of a thick package (~7.5 km) of six unconformity-bounded, lenticular-shaped, lithostratigraphic units (a.k.a. supersequences, megasequences and Sloss sequences after the geo-pioneer). Deposited in intervals of tens of millions of years and classified by mechanism of subsidence, the sequences are second-order (formed during tectono-eustasy versus first-order during global tectonic cycles). The concept is a long-standing paradigm of stratigraphic geology. 

From bottom to top, the six supersequences are Rio Ivaí (Ordovician-Silurian) and Paraná (Devonian) that correspond to early and middle Paleozoic marine transgressive-regressive cycles. The remainder are continental sedimentary packages acquired during and following Pangaea amalgamation: Gondwana I (Carboniferous-Early Triassic), Gondwana II (Middle-Late Triassic), Gondwana III (Late Jurassic-Early Cretaceous) and Bauru (Late Cretaceous) Gondwana III's uppermost igneous extrusive sequence, the Serra Geral Formation, is directly responsible for Iguazú Falls geomorphology, while underlying units and crystalline basement the basin with support and structure.

NW-SE Cross-sectional Stratigraphy Map of the Paraná Basin in Brazil
 Overlying a Rodinia-acquired crystalline basement, six supersequences were deposited within the Paraná Basin of West Gondwana from the Late Ordovician to the Cretaceous. Uppermost, Serra Geral basalts were acquired during the break-up of Pangaean Gondwana in the Late Cretaceous. 

From Mineropar and Milani and Zalan, 1998

Late Ordovician to Silurian...
During the early Paleozoic, Gondwana while in the Southern Hemisphere was surrounded by a number of lesser continents within the global Panthalassa Ocean. The nascent Paraná Basin (encircled), in communication with the Rheic Ocean that opened with the rifting of the Avalonia magmatic arc, formed an epicratonic embayment when it received a basalmost transgressive supersequence of the Late Ordovician to Early Silurian (~440 to 370 Ma) Rio Ivaí Group. Deposited unconformably on the assumed Paranapanema basement, the shallow gulf includes sandstones, mudstones and glacial deposits (white star indicates the South Pole). 

Gondwana glaciation resulted in the deposition of diamictites and shales of the Iapó Formation.The two supersequences are the earliest basin-fill units that underlie the Paraná Basin, the region in which Iguazú Falls would form in another 400 or so million years. The following schematic maps are found in Torsvik and Cocks (see references).

Paraná Basin in the Late Ordovician (~450 Ma)
Gondwana is positioned askew over the South Polar (white star) glacial ice cap.
West and East Gondwana have merged into one with the outline of modern continents superimposed. South America and Africa are juxtaposed with nearly equivocal subsidence histories and stratigraphy of neighboring cratonic basins. Influenced by tectonics and climate, the Paraná Basin (encircled) received shallow epeiric sediments from a marine incursion and glaciogenic deposits from the ice cap both during Late Ordovician to Middle Silurian and from Late Devonian to early Permian.

In the Early Devonian, the Paraná Basin was at the inbound end of an epeiric sea (shallow continental shelf flooding) recorded by transgressive shales of the Silurian Villa Maria Formation and post-glacial transgressions of the Devonian Paraná Group, the basin's second supersequence

As Gondwana drifted from higher latitudes towards Laurentia between the Carboniferous and Early Permian, the Paraná Basin again glaciated during the longest of the Phanerozoic at some 90 million years. As the ice age waxed and waned, it affected eustatic sea level change that in turn influenced deposition in coastal basins globally. Even foreland basins in communication with the sea were affected such as the Paradox Basin of the Ancestral Rockies with 30 transgressive-regressive cycles (read about it here).

Paraná Basin in the Early Devonian (~400 Ma)
Subduction zones (solid red triangular lines) are developing around Gondwana, which had profound influence on subsidence and sedimentation within intracontinental cratonic basins. Throughout the Devonian, the Paraná Basin (ellipse) remained at the inboard end of the epeiric Rheic Ocean that opened between the North African-rifted Avalonia arc and West Gondwana. The basin was
influenced by global high and low sea levels that flooded and exposed a portion of the shallow shelf light blue). The Iapetus Ocean between Laurentia and the Avalon arc has closed with Avalonia poised to collide with Laurussia (Laurentia and Eurasia). All that stands between Gondwana and the Laurentian cratonic core of North America is the Rheic Ocean, whose closure will form Pangaea and build the elongate Central Pangaean Mountain range.

Carboniferous to Early Triassic...
The 'second' Parana Basin began with a Gondwanan collisional cycle when an extensive mountain belt formed southwest of the basin. The event flexed internal portions of Gondwana that overloaded continental lithosphere and contributed to basin subsidence. 

The marine Gondwana I Supersequence during the Carboniferous to Permian is the basin's largest and most complex sedimentary package. It represents invasion and exit of the Panthalassa Sea as the Paraná Basin finally closed, entrapped within continental West Gondwana. The basin records dramatic paleoenvironmental changes through time from glacial epochs in the Pennsylvanian (the Itararé Group and Aquidauana Formation), a marine transgressive section (Guatá Group) with sandstones and coals (Rio Bonito, Palermo, and Irati Formations), redbeds (Rio do Rasto) and the arid Triassic period of central Gondwanan Pangaea.

Paraná Basin in the Early Permian (~280 Ma)
During the Carboniferous, Gondwana ceased to become an independent supercontinent, since it collided obliquely. merging with Laurussia to form Pangaea around 320 Ma. Glaciogenic rocks were deposited in the region of Paraná in an event that heralded the start of the global icehouse period, the most long-lived glacial period of the Phanerozoic. Although the bulk of Pangaea remained unified, there was break-up initiated at some margins, especially with the opening of the Neotethys Ocean. The Permian ended with a substantial mass extinction related to global atmospheric and temperature deterioration related to basaltic outpourings of the Siberian Traps at ~251 Ma. 

Paraná Basin in the Permian-Triassic (~250 Ma)
As intracontinental subsidence and sedimentation, Gondwana en masse has drifted across a closed Rheic Ocean and merged equatorially with Laurussia to form Pangaea with enormous strike-slip faulting, enough to bring round today's southern Laurussia to face the northwestern sector of Gondwana. Subduction of the Gondwanan orogen is underway along Gondwana's southern border, promoting internal basin subsidence and Gondwana I terrestrial sedimentation. Click for a larger view. Pangaea was beginning to break-up, well before the end of the Paleozoic, as noted by the opened Neotethys (and closing Paleotethys) well in advance of the Atlantic (a commonly viewed initiation event). Most of Gondwana though remained a coherent entity.

Basin-fill records radical paleoenvironmental changes through time that Gondwana was experiencing, everything from Pennsylvanian glacial to a marine transgression and then arid Triassic sands. Owing to the proximity of intracratonic basins within South America and Africa, nearly equivocal, syn-depositional supersequences are found across the Atlantic within Namibian-Angolan basins. 

The Paraná Basin possesses famous and important paleontological representatives. Waning glaciation in the Middle Permian allowed Gondwana I shales to preserve fossils of Glossopteris (extinct order of seed fern) and Late Permian Mesosaurus (extinct freshwater crocodylian)

Prior to the concept of plate tectonics, the enigma of their transoceanic locations were thought related to land bridges that spanned stable continents. But their pronounced fit and distribution of related glacial deposits when plotted on a global geometric reconstruction led early 19th century geoscientists - such as Alfred Wegener in 1915 - to the concept of continental drift (a simple rift-to-drift theory) and the idea that the southern continents once formed a Pangaean supercontinent from a once-unified, dispersed Gondwana. Of course, more recent dating, paleomagnetic evidence and a better understanding of mantle dynamics led to the theory of plate tectonics in the 1960s.

Important Fossil Locations in West and East Gondwana and Future South Hemispheric Continents
The geological fit of the South Hemispheric continents and fossilized remains of extinct reptiles and plants (specially Glossopteris) gave support for continental drift and a once-unified Gondwana. The red ellipse indicates the location of the intracontinental sedimentary basins of West Gondwana including Paraná with Mesosaurus and Glossopteris. The conjugate margin in Africa contains identical strata and fossils. 
Modified from Pearson Prentice Hall 2005

Middle to Late Triassic...
Once formed, Gondwana remained an independent supercontinent for ~200 myr. Its insulation ended in the Permian after completing a transequatorial tectonic journey across a closing succession of Iapetus and Rheic Oceans. It was then that the South American portion of West Gondwana obliquely collided with the eastern margin of southern Laurentia and African portion collided with northern Laurentia. The event formed Pangaea, the next supercontinent in the succession.

The collision marked a major depositional change for South America's sag basins, the Paraná in particular. Previously, they acquired marine, nonmarine and glaciogenic lithologies when Gondwana was insular. Subsequent to amalgamation with Pangaea, continental sedimentation (subaerial, lacustrine and fluvial deposits) prevailed within the basins entrapped within unified Pangaea. Thus began Middle to Late Triassic Gondwana II supersequences of fluvial and lacustrine red beds locally. 

A Unified Pangaea in the Latest Permian
In the early and middle Paleozoic, Gondwana existed as an insular South Hemispheric supercontinent. Things changed depositionally in the late Permian following Gondwana's transequatorial migration and amalgamation with Pangaea, when continental sedimentation took over within West Gondwana's intracontinental intracratonic basins. The geometric fit of the continents within West Gondwanan Pangaea is very evident as are the juxtaposed Paraná and Etendeka provinces of South America and Africa (encircled).
Modified from Paleontology Portal

Late Jurassic to Early Cretaceous desertification and volcanic activity...
Two major events affected the Gondwana III supersequence that formed within the 'third' superimposed basin: desertification of interior Pangaea and the formation of a massive igneous province that heralded the dawn of global tectonic change. Reflective of the extremely arid paleoclimate within the central supercontinent and West Gondwana, the region preserves 2 million sq km of cross-bedded eolian sandstones of the Botucatu Formation. Today, it holds the Guarani Aquifer, one of the world's largest beneath the surface of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. 

Gondwana II's second member, the Serra Geral Formation, closed the the sedimentary depositional history of the Paraná Basin and consists of extensive and voluminous basalts that flooded the continental landscape. The volcanics may have caused some degree of basin subsidence due to overloading and/or cooling of its deep intrusive plumbing. The extrusion of Serra Geral basalts was a sign of impending large-scale, global tectonic reorganization, and regionally, was responsible for the geomorphology of Iguazú Falls

Paraná Basin in the Triassic-Jurassic (~200 Ma)
At this time, the majority of Gondwana remains unified with Pangaea, having amalgamated at the internalized Iapetus and Rheic sutures (heavy black lines). Two impending divergent tectonic boundaries exist (white dotted lines), one between Gondwana and Laurussia and the other between West and East Gondwana. The Central Atlantic is about to open (~195 Ma) between South America and Africa but only after the emplacement of the CAMP LIP (~201 Ma). Final break-up of East and West Gondwana (~175) Ma was related to passage over plume generation zones (PGZ, red dotted line) relate to the formation of large igneous provinces. Active deep-plume-sourced hotspots are commonly linked to LIPs such as the Tristan, which is linked to the ~134 Ma Parana–Etendeka LIP (ellipse).

In the north-central corner of the Paraná Basin, a downwarped retro-arc basin formed in the Early Jurassic subsequent to Andean orogenics along South America's western margin. It accommodated the deposition of the region's final sedimentary unit, the Upper Cretaceous Bauru Supersequence. It consists of alluvial, fluvial and eolian lithologies and contains important plant, reptile and dinosaur bones, and eggs and teeth of titanosaurian sauropods in particular. The discoveries led to the assertion that Southern Hemispheric dinosaur biogeography was largely controlled by the progressive break-up of Gondwana.

Columnar Flood Basalts of the Serra Geral Formation
Blanketed by dense rainforest, Isla de San Martin lies mid-channel below the falls. A palisade of columnar basalt basalt and polygonal debris have been exposed by fluvial-erosion and reveals flows of basalt that form three tiers of the falls. After arriving via Zodiac boats, steps lead to a balcony that faces the thunderous Devil's Throat of the falls. The island is the home of Iguazú's Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus), whose range extends from southeastern U.S. to southern central South America.

Also called Arapey (flows) and Cuaró (sills) in Uruguay and the Alto Paraná Formation in Paraguay, the Serra Geral Formation, its most cited name, is derived from the eastern Serra Geral escarpment in Brazil. Lying above the flat-lying Atlantic Coastal Plain, eroded and dissected cliffs mark the easternmost extent of the massive lava field of the Paraná Basin, which has a trans-Atlantic, once-contiguous volcanic counterpart in Africa. 

With an area of ~917,000 sq km, volume of ~450,000 cu km extrusives at the surface and an estimated 112,000 intrusives within the subsurface as sills and dikes that propagated the ascent of magma and delivered lava to the surface, the Serra Geral lava field forms the Paraná Volcanic/Magmatic Province of the Paraná Basin of Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay. In its entirety, it also includes continental basalts that emplaced in the Etendeka region of southwest Africa in Namibia and Angola in the Early Cretaceous that were disproportionately divided by continental rifting.

The Eastern Escarpment in Serra Geral National Park Relief up to 1,820 m is controlled by a system of tectonic lineaments that transect the region and erosive differences between basaltic and rhyolitic flows. The escarpments were created when intense en echelon faulting (closely-spaced, parallel, step-like features oblique to the structural trend) that parallel the coast separated large blocks that cascaded into the newly-opening Atlantic Ocean. East-directed rivers festooned the escarpments, while others, such as Río Iguazú, headed west controlled by tilting of the Paraná Plateau. Modified from Costao da Fortaleva

Serra Geral basalts are a package of some 32 or more flows that emplaced between ~140 and 129 Ma and peaked ~133-130 Ma. The eruption period is relatively brief but poorly constrained and spans variably ~2.4 to 10 Myr. Typical of extensional tectonic regimes, Serra Geral igneous rocks are predominantly basalts, high volume, brief eruptions of low viscosity-fluid mafic magma (low-silica, dark-colored ferro-magnesian minerals) but also include some intermediate and felsic rocks (high-silica, light-colored, rhyolitic-granitic rocks). It's a bimodal igneous rock distribution that is asymmetrically distributed throughout the volcanic province and has implications for its evolution (more on that in post Part II). 

The bimodal igneous lava rock distribution is as follows: 
•  ~90% tholeiitic lavas (basalt sub-type with reduced olivines and higher quartz-mafic saturation typical of oceanic spreading centers)
•  ~70% tholeiitic andesites (intermediate)
•  ~3% rhyolites (light-colored, iron and quartz-rich felsic rocks. 

In addition to the above distribution of igneous rocks, a silicic geochemical subclass or suite of high- and low-Ti (titanium) exists (also with additional elements) within various intermediate igneous latites (<5% quartz) and quartz latites. Their distribution within the Parana Basin has marked provinciality to the extent that volcanological genetic and emplacement mechanisms are implied (and discussed in Part II).

"Monuments to the Departed World"
So wrote English scientist Edward Jenner in 1816, suspecting that polygonal-shaped basalt columns were the dental and tentacular remains of terrible beasts frozen in rock. These are columnar  remnants strewn about the 
Paraná landscape and are identical to those seen in profile on Isla de Martin below the falls and found globally. The polygonal geometry, size and orderly arrangement is determined by basalt's rate of cooling, which results in its distinctive contraction.

Earliest flows intercalated with uppermost arid Botucatu eolian sediments as pre-existing, re-activated NE and NW tectonic lineaments subdivided the flows, which further delineated the basin. Notable are Ponta Grossa arch, a major NW-SE-trending domal feature and site of the province's most important dike swarm. The N–S Asuncion Arch on the west separates the Paraná Basin from the Chaco-Paraná Basin. It's a western extension of the Paraná in Argentina with a contrasting evolutionary history also related to Andean foreland orogenics.

Our planet's geologic history is interspersed with the rapid extrusion of massive volumes of mainly flood basalts - upwards of 100,000 cu km and often exceeding 1,000,000 - that emplaced over a relatively brief time interval across the landscape of pre-rift continents. Unrelated to seafloor spreading at mid-ocean ridges and at subduction zones that occur at plate margins, these infrequent intraplate Large Igneous Provinces (LIPs) or Continental Flood Basalts (CFBs) are linked to regional uplift, continental rifting and break-up, and global environmental catastrophes and mass extinction events. 

Consisting of Serra Geral basalts, the Paraná Volcanic Province is one such continental LIP that preceded rifting apart of the West Gondwanan component of Pangaea. Its emplacement resulted in the opening of the South Atlantic Ocean and dispersal of the continents that border the Atlantic realm - South America and Africa. Postulated genetic connections between the emplacement of LIPs, mantle plumes, hotspot activity and continental rifting have resulted in the emergence of several contrasting genetic models. 

Before continental rifting and South Atlantic seafloor spreading separated West Gondwana and greater Pangaea broke apart, the future continents of South America and Africa were juxtaposed. Serra Geral basalts extruded over the cratonic basins of both continents. 

The massive lava field formed the combined Paraná (~1.2 mil sq km and up to ~1.7 km thick) in southeastern South America and Etendeka Volcanic Provinces in southwestern Africa (~78,000 sq km and ~1 km thick). Having formed coevally over a relatively short duration, the two provinces possess a close commonality of temporal, geochemical, petrological, stratigraphic and tectono-genetic attributes, although some differences do exist.

Early Fragmentation of Pangaea in the Early Jurassic
In the Jurassic, continental rifting had not yet initiated in West Gondwana, the southern portion of Pangaea. At this time, the lava fields of Paraná in South America and Etendeka in Africa (ellipse) were contiguous across the as-yet unopened South Atlantic Ocean. Pangaean fragmentation had previously begun in the Central Atlantic in the Late Triassic-Early Jurassic but not yet in the North Atlantic between North America-Greenland and Eurasia. Technically, Pangaea's dissociation first began not with Atlantic oceanization but with closure of the Panthalassic Ocean on Pangaea's west margin and the Tethys Ocean (pre-Mediterranean) on the east. Modified from Paleontology Portal  

The bulk (~95%) of the formerly-unified, ocean-separated volcanic province is presently located within the Paraná Basin in Brasil and Argentina. In Africa, Etendeka Group Tsuhasis Basalts emplaced within the Huab Basin (~80,000 sq km, 900 m thick) of northwestern Namibia and the Kwanza Basin of southwest Angola within the Novo Redondo and Lucira Formations

The Paraná-Etendeka Volcanic Province is the largest preserved LIP on the planet in terms of size and volume and is increasingly one of the most studied. Greatly eroded and likely once larger as implied by the location of central conduits and an extensive centrifugal array of dike swarms and ring-complexes that fed the volcanic fury, it currently ranks as the world's second largest LIP of the Phanerozoic and is surpassed only by the Siberian Traps (Swedish for eroded steps of basalt) in Russia's Tunguska sedimentary basin.

Although also bimodal in composition, the percentage of silicic volcanics in the Etendeka (~50%) is proportionally higher than the Paraná (only ~3%), possibly related to asymmetry of the LIP.

But the story of the Paraná Basin and Volcanic Province is far from over. Many important questions remain unanswered, and Iguazú Falls has yet to form. 

•  What was the trigger for magma generation, volcanism and continental rifting? 
•  Paraná-Etendeka magmatism is closely associated in space and time with continental rifting. Was the long-lived Tristan da Cunha-Gough mantle plume involved or was it a plume-less process related to plate tectonics?
•  Did the plume provide passive heat for lithospheric melting or did it play a more active role by contributing material as well? Does the plume really exist? In fact, what's down there?
•  To what extent was the sub-continental lithospheric mantle and depleted asthenospheric mantle involved? What do Serra Geral chemistries suggest? What is the correlation between the bimodal association of the Paraná-Etendeka's basaltic and silicic rocks? How does basin provinciality based on geochemistry play into volcanological genesis theories? 
•  Once the Paraná Basin acquired its Paleozoic sedimentary supersequences and Cretaceous igneous cover, what happened during the Cenozoic in regards to uplift, deformation and plateau segmentation?
•  Recognizing the hypothesized temporal association between LIP eruptions and mass extinction events, how does the Paraná-Etendeka Volcanic Province compare to others of the Phanerozoic?
•  What about Iguazú Falls? How did a billion years of geologic events affect its geomorphology? Does it behave like other falls on resistant bedrock globally?

Please visit my forthcoming post Part II for a continuation of this discussion.

Odysseys Unlimited...
Our "custom-designed, small group" excursion to Iguazú Falls was sponsored by Smithsonian Journeys and conducted by travel partner Odysseys Unlimited of Massachusetts (here). From Buenos Aires to Cape Horn, from the Drake Passage to the Chilean fjords and Torres del Paine National Park, and up the coast to Santiago, it was a prelude to the Patagonian Journeys tour in southern Argentina and Chile by land and sea.

Odysseys' Patagonia Tour Director Gabriel Blacher...
Virtually indispensable, his knowledge, expertise, attention to detail and adept handling of every conceivable situation (including the weather) was highly appreciated by all. Gabe's thoughtfulness, willingness to accommodate to everyone's needs, endless wit, amiable personality and sexy tango lessons on the bus will long be remembered.

Smithsonian Journeys Expert Wayne Ranney...
Wayne is a passionate geologist, experienced educator, river and trail guide, and well-published, multi-honored author that has acquired a wealth of knowledge on his travels to all seven continents and 85 countries. With a keen interest in archaeology, anthropology, history, foreign cultures, languages and everything related to our planet, his engaging and informative presentations always packed the house with the greatest of anticipation. His thorough explanations and insightful interpretations of the landscape and its evolution always puts things into a new and clearer perspective. No trip anywhere is complete without Wayne! Look for him here.

The Intrepid "Iguazú Crew"...
Forged by the bonds of world-class geology, travel adventure and central air conditioning, it was great fun exploring the falls and surrounding rainforest together! And thanks again to "Arizona" John for thoughtfully providing everyone with solar eclipse sunglasses. Fortunately, my vision has almost returned to normal.

John, Pat, Ed, local guide Eduardo, Dee, Sandy and Sharon

Personal communications...
Lastly, I am extremely grateful to Edgardo M. Latrubesse, PhD of the University of Texas at Austin and Professor Eduardo Salamuni, PhD of the Federal University of Parana State in Brazil. Each contributed extremely helpful information on the evolution of the Paraná Basin and geomorphology of Iguazú Falls. Dr. Salamuni's personal communications were of great value in formulating many of the ideas found in these three posts.

•  Amplified Erosion Above Waterfalls and Oversteepened Bedrock Reaches by I. Haviv et al, Journal of Geophysical Research 111, 2006.
•  An Outline of the Geology and Petroleum Systems of the Paleozoic Interior Basins of South America by Edison José Milani and Pedro Victor Zalán, Episodes 2, 2014.
•  A New Scheme for the Opening of the South Atlantic Ocean and the Dissection of an Aptian Salt Basin by Trond H. Torsvik et al, Geophys. J. Int 177, 2009.
•  A Review of Wilson Cycle Plate Margins: A Role for Mantle Plumes in Continental Break-up Along Sutures? by Susanne J.H. Buitera and Trond H. Torsvik, Gondwana Research 26, 2014.
•  Assembly, configuration, and break-up history of Rodinia: A Synthesis by Z.X. Li et al, Precambrian Research 160, 2008.
•  Beyond Power: Bedrock River Incision Process and Form by Gregory S. Hancock and Robert S. Anderson, Geophysical Monograph 107, 1998.
•  Climatic Events During the Late Pleistocene and Holocene in the Upper Parana River: Correlation with NE Argentina and South-Central Brazil by Jose C. Stevaux, Quaternary International 72, 2000.
•  Contemporaneous Assembly of Western Gondwana and Final Rodinia Break-up: Implications for the Supercontinent Cycle by Sebastián Oriolo et al, Geoscience Frontiers, 2007.
•  Continental Rift Evolution: From Rift Initiation to Incipient Break-up in the Main Ethiopian Rift, East Africa by Giacomo Corti, Earth-Science Reviews 96, 2009.
•  Cratonic Basins by Philip A. Allen et al, Tectonics of Sedimentary Basins: Recent Advances, First Edition, Chapter 30, 2012.
•  Cratonic Basins and the Long-term Subsidence History of Continental Interiors by John Joseph Armitage and Philip A. Allen, Journal of the Geological Society, 2010. 
•  Deep Crustal Structure of the Paraná Basin from Receiver Functions and Rayleigh-wave Dispersion: Evidence for a Fragmented Cratonic Root by J. Julià et al, Journal of Geophysical research, 2008.
•  Foz do Iguaçú: Geomorphological Context of the Iguaçú Falls by Marga Eliz Pontelli and Julio Cesar Paisani, Landscapes and Landforms of Brazil, Chapter 31, 2015.
•  Geophysical Definition of Paranapanema Proterozoic Block and Its Importance for the Rodinia to Gondwana Evolutionary Theories by M. Mantovani et al, Abstract 8053, EGS-AGU-EUG Joint Assembly, Nice, France, 2003.
•  Gondwana Collision by T.S. Abu-Alam, Miner Petrol, 2013.
•  Gondwana from Top to Base in Space and Time by Trond H. Torsvik and L. Robin M. Cocks, Gondwana Research 24, 2013.
•  Gondwanaland from 650–500 Ma Assembly through 320 Ma Merger in Pangaea to 185–100 Ma Breakup: Supercontinental Tectonics via Stratigraphy and Radiometric Dating by J.J. Veevers, Earth-Science Reviews 68, 2004.
•  Iguazu Falls: A History of Differential Fluvial Incision by José C. Stevaux and Edgardo M. Latrubesse, Geomorphological Landscapes of the World, Chapter 11, 2010.
•  Landscapes and Landforms of Brazil by Bianca Carvalho Vieira et al, Springer Science, 2015.
•  Magnificent Canyons Sculpted in the Aparados da Serra Scarps of the Volcanic Plateau of the Paraná Basin by Wilson Wildner et al, Geological and Paleotological Sites of Brazil on-line, 2006.
•  New Insights on the Occurrence of Peperites and Sedimentary Deposits within the Silicic Volcanic Sequences of the Paraná Magmatic Province, Brazil by A. C. F. Luchetti
•  Orogenias Paleozoicas No Dominio Sul-Ocidental do Gondwana e Os Ciclos de Subsidencia da Basin do Parana by Edison J. Milani and Victor A. Ramos, Revista Brasileira de Geociências 28, 1998.
•  Paleomagnetic Poles and Paleosecular Variation of Basalts from Paraná Magmatic Province, Brazil: Geomagnetic and Geodynamic Implications by Luis M. Alva-Valdivia et al, Physics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors 138, 2003.
•  Parana Magmatic Province-Tristan da Cunha Plume System: Fixed Versus Mobile Plume, Petrogenetic Considerations and Alternative Heat Sources by M. Ernesto et al, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 188, 2002.
•  Planation Surfaces on the Paraná Basaltic Plateau, South America by Daniela Kröhling et al, Gondwana Landscapes in Southern South America, 2014.
•  Review of the Areal Extent and the Volume of the Serra Geral Formation, Paraná Basin, South America by Heinrich Theodor Frank et al, Pesquisas em Geociências 36, 2009.
•  Role of Subaerial Volcanic Rocks and Mantle Plumes in Creation of South Atlantic Margins: Implications for Salt Tectonics and Source Rocks by Martin P.A. Jackson et al, Marine and Petroleum Geology 17, 2000.
•  Seismic Structure of the Crust and Uppermost Mantle of South America and Surrounding Oceanic Basins by Gary S. Chulick et al, Journal of South American Earth Sciences 42, 2013.
•  Self-formed Waterfall Plunge Pools in Homogeneous Rock by Joel S. Scheingross et al, Geophysical Research Letters 10.1002, 2016.
•  Slab Pull, Mantle Convection, and Pangaean Assembly and Dispersal by W.J. Collins, Earth and Planetary Science Letters 205, 2003.
•  South Atlantic Opening: A Plume-Induced Breakup? by T. Fromm et al, Geology 43, 2015.
•  Synchrony Between the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province and the Triassic–Jurassic Mass-extinction event? by Jessica H. Whiteside et al, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 244, 2007.
•  Tectonics and Sedimentation of the Paraná Basin by Pedro Victor Zalán, Atlas do III Simposio Sul-Brasileiro de Geologica 1, 1987.
•  The Controversy over Plumes: Who Is Actually Right? V. N. Puchkov, Geotectonics 43, 2009.
•  The Cretaceous Opening of the South Atlantic Ocean by Roi Granot and Jérôme Dyment, Earth and Planetary Science Letters 414, 2015.
•  The Faroe-Shetland Basin: A Regional Perspective from the Paleogene to the Present Day and its Relationship to the Opening of the North Atlantic Ocean by David Ellis and Martyn S. Stoker, Geological Societyy, London, Special Publications 397, 2014. 
•  The Formation of Pangaea by G.M. Stampfli et al, Tectonophysics 593, 2013.
•  The Origin and Evolution of the South American Platform by Fernando Flávio Marques de Almeida et al, Earth-Science Reviews 50, 2000.
•  The Paraná Basin, Brazil in Interior Cratonic Basins by P.V. Zalan et al, Memoir Vol. 51, 1991.
•  The Paranapanema Lithospheric Block: Its Importance for Proterozoic (Rodinia, Gondwana) Supercontinent Theories by M.S.M. Mantovani and B.B. de Brito Neves, Gondwana Research 8, 2005.
•  The Cretaceous Alkaline Dyke Swarm in the Central Segment of the Asuncion Rift, Eastern Paraguay: Its Regional Distribution, Mechanism of Emplacement, and Tectonic Significance by Victor F. Velazquez et al, Journal of Geological Research 2011, 2011.
•  The Fossilised Desert: Recent Developments in Our Understanding of the Lower Cretaceous Deposits in the Huab Basin, NW Namibia by Dougal A. Jerram et al, Communs geol. Surv. Namibia, 12, 2000.
•  The Persistence of Waterfalls in Fractured Rock by Michael P. Lamb and William E. Dietrich, GSA Bulletin July/August 2009.
•  The “Plate” Model for the Genesis of Melting Anomalies by G.R. Foulger, Department of Earth Sciences, Durham University, Durham, U.K.,
•  The South American Retroarc Foreland System: The Development of the Bauru Basin in the Back-bulge Province by Mirian Costa Menegazzo et al, Marine and Petroleum Geology 73, 2016.
•  Thermotectonic and Fault Dynamic Analysis of Precambrian Basement and Tectonic Constraints with the Parana Basin by L.F.B. Ribeiroa et al, Radiation Measurements 39, 2005. 
•  Titaniferous Magnetite and Barite from the San Gregorio de Polanco Dike Swarm, Paraná Magmatic Province, Uruguay by Rossana Muzio, Earth Sciences Research Journal 17, 2013.
•  Volcanological Aspects of the Northwest Region of Paraná Continental Flood Basalts (Brazil) by F. Braz Machado et al, Solid Earth 6, 2015.
Zircon U-Pb Geochronology from the Paraná Bimodal Volcanic Province by Viter Magalhães
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