Sediment Supply and the Importance of Big Rivers


Sediment supply is controlled primarily by tectonics and climate. In geologically simple areas, where the basin is fed directly from the adjacent margins and source-area uplift is related to basin subsidence, supply considerations are likely to be directly correlated to basin subsidence and eustasy as the major controls of basin architecture. Such is the case where subsidence is yoked to peripheral upwarps, or in proximal regions of foreland basins adjacent to fold-thrust belts. However, where the basin is supplied by long-distance fluvial transportation, complications are likely to arise. Where the rate of sediment supply is high, it may overwhelm other influences to become a dominant control on sequence architecture. Many sedimentary basins were filled by river systems whose drainage area has been subsequently remodeled by tectonism, and it may take considerable geological investigation to reconstruct their possible past positions. For example, stratigraphic successions may occur that cannot be related to the evolution of adjacent orogens. In North America, dynamic topographic processes have generated regional uplifts and continental tilts that have resulted in deep erosion and large-scale continental fluxes of detrital sediment. For example, much of the detritus derived by uplift and erosion of the Grenville orogen of eastern North America during the late Precambrian may have ended up contributing to the thick Neoproterozoic sedimentary wedges on the western continental margin. Detailed study of detrital zircons from sedimentary rocks of this age in the western Canadian Arctic indicated that 50% of them are of Grenville age. A major west-flowing river system was established during the late Proterozoic which transported this detritus some 3,000 km across the continental interior. Much of the thick accumulations of late Paleozoic and Mesozoic fluvial and eolian strata in the southwestern United States had been derived from Appalachian sources, and this was confirmed by the detrital-zircon. Tertiary river system draining from the continental interior of North America into Hudson Bay, ultimately delivering sediment to the Labrador Shelf. This has been supported by the studies of Cenozoic landforms and sediments. 


Major river systems may cross major tectonic boundaries, feeding sediment of a petrographic type unrelated to the receiving basin, into the basin at a rate unconnected in any way with the subsidence history of the basin itself. The modern Amazon river is a good example. It derives from the Andean Mountains, flows across and between, and is fed from several Precambrian shields, and debouches onto a major extensional continental margin. From the point of view of sequence stratigraphy, the important point is that large sediment supplies delivered to a shoreline may overwhelm the stratigraphic effects of variations in sea level. A region undergoing a relative or eustatic rise in sea level may still experience stratigraphic regression if large delta complexes are being built by major sediment-laden rivers. Effects of upstream controls on the development of fluvial graded profiles, fluvial style and the development of nonmarine sequences downstream. Upstream controls may also be significant in the case of deep-marine deposits. Major episodes of submarine-fan sedimentation in the North Sea and Shetland-Faeroes basins correlate with pulses of Iceland plume activity, which caused magmatic underplating of the continental margin, and uplift, erosion, and enhanced sediment delivery to offshore sedimentary basins. A significant example of this long-distance sedimentary control is the Cenozoic stratigraphic evolution of the Texas-Louisiana coast of the Gulf of Mexico. This continental margin is fed with sediment by rivers that have occupied essentially the same position since the early Tertiary. The rivers feed into the Gulf Coast from huge drainage basins occupying large areas of the North American Interior. Progradation has extended the continental margin of the Gulf by up to 350 km. This has taken place episodically in both time and space, developing a series of major clastic wedges, some hundreds of metres in thickness. The major changes along strike of the thickness of these clastic wedges is also evidence against a control by passive sea-level change. Highly suggestive are the correlations with the tectonic events of the North American Interior; for example, the timing of the Lower and Upper Wilcox Group wedges relative to the timing of the Laramide orogenic pulses along the Cordillera. It seems likely that sediment supply, driven by source-area tectonism, is the major control on the location, timing and thickness of the Gulf Coast clastic wedges. A secondary control is the nature of local tectonism on the continental margin itself, including growth faulting, evaporite diapirism and gravity sliding. Variations in deep-marine sediment dispersal in the Gulf of Mexico show very similar patterns to the coastal and fluvial variations. Large-scale submarine-fan systems are therefore dependent, also, on considerations of long-term sediment supply variation, which may be controlled by plate-margin tectonism, in-plane stress regime and dynamic topography.


In arc-related basins volcanic control of the sediment supply may overprint the effects of sea-level change. Sediment supply and tectonic activity overprinted the eustatic effects and enhanced or lessened them. If large supplies of clastics or uplift overcame the eustatic effects, deep marine sands were also deposited during highstand of sea level, whereas under conditions of low sediment input, thin-bedded turbidites were deposited even during lowstands of sea level.

Other examples of the tectonic control of major sedimentary units are provided by the basins within and adjacent to the Alpine and Himalayan orogens. Sediments shed by the rising mountains drain into foreland basins, remnant ocean basins, strike-slip basins, and other internal basins. But the sediment supply is controlled entirely by uplift and by the tectonic control of dispersal routes. For example, the Oligocene Molasse of the Swiss proforeland basin was deposited by rivers flowing axially along the basin, and that these underwent reversal in transport directions as a result of changes in the configuration of the basin and the collision zone during orogenesis. The shifting of dispersal routes through basins and fault valleys within the Himalayan orogen of central and southeast Asia. Some of the major rivers in the area (Tsangpo, Salween, Mekong) are known to have entirely switched to different basins during the evolution of the orogen. Much work remains to be done to relate the details of the stratigraphy in these various basins to the different controls of tectonic subsidence, tectonic control of sediment supply, and eustatic sea-level changes.
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    1 comment:

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