Shallow marine environments of terrigenous clastic deposition


The continental shelves and epicontinental seas are important sites of deposition of sand and mud in the world’s oceans and account for over half the volume of ocean sediments. These successions can be very thick, over 10,000 m, because deposition may be very long-lived and can continue uninterrupted for tens of millions of years. They occur as largely undeformed strata around the edges of continents and also in orogenic belts, where the collision of continental plates has forced beds deposited in shallow marine environments high up into mountain ranges. This chapter focuses on the terrigenous clastic deposits found in shallow seas; carbonate sedimentation, which is also important in these environments.

Sediment supply to shallow seas

The supply of sediment to shelves is a fundamental control on shallow marine environments and depositional facies of shelves and epicontinental seas. If the area lies adjacent to an uplifted continental region and there is a drainage pattern of rivers delivering detritus to the coast, the shallow-marine sedimentation will be dominated by terrigenous clastic deposits. The highest concentrations of clastic sediment will be near the mouths of major rivers: adjacent coastal regions will also be supplied with sediment by longshore movement of material by waves, storms and tides. Shallow seas that are not supplied by much terrigenous material may be areas of carbonate sedimentation, especially if they are in lower latitudes where the climate is relatively warm. In cooler climates where carbonate production is slower, shelves and shallow seas with low terrigenous sediment supply are considered to be starved. The rate of sediment accumulation is slow and may be exceeded by the rate of subsidence of the sea floor such that the environment becomes gradually deeper with time.

Characteristics of shallow marine sands

Detritus that reaches a shallow sea is likely to have had a history of transport in rivers, may have passed through a delta or estuary, or could have been temporarily deposited along a coastline before it arrives at the shelf. If there is a long history of transport through these other environments the grain assemblage is likely to be mature. Texturally, the grains of sand will have suffered a degree of abrasion and the processes of turbulent flow during transport will separate the material into different grain sizes. The compositional maturity will probably be greater than the equivalent continental deposits, because the more labile minerals and grains (such as feldspar and lithic fragments) are broken down during transport: shallow marine sands are commonly dominated by quartz grains. In polar areas, the sediment supplied is much less mature because cold weather reduces chemical weathering of the grains and glacial transport does not result in much sorting or rounding of the clasts. The detrital component is often complemented by material that orginates in the shallow marine environment. Shallow seas are rich in marine life, including many organisms that have calcareous shells and skeletons. The remains of these biogenic hard parts are a major component of shelf carbonate deposits, but can also be very abundant in sands and muds deposited in these seas. Whole shells and skeletons may be preserved in mudrocks because they are low-energy deposits. In higher energy parts of the sea, currents move sand around and a lot of biogenic debris is broken up into bioclastic fragments ranging from sand-sized, unidentifiable pieces up to larger pieces of shelly material and bone. Bone is also the origin for phosphates that can form as authigenic deposits in shallow marine settings: these phosphates are relatively rare. However, another authigenic mineral, glauconite, is a common component of sandstones and mudrocks formed on shelves and epicontinental seas and is considered to be a reliable indicator of shallow marine conditions. The characteristic dark green colour of the mineral gives sediments rich in it a distinctly green tinge, although it is iron-rich and weathers to a rusty orange colour. ‘Greensands’ are shallowmarine deposits rich in glauconite that are particularly common in Cretaceous strata in the northern hemisphere. Shallow seas are environments rich in animal life, particularly benthic organisms that can leave traces of their activity in the sediments. Bioturbation may form features that are recognisable of the activities of a particular type of organism, but also results in a general churning of the sediment, homogenising it into apparently structureless masses. Primary sedimentary structures (wave ripples, hummocky cross-stratification, trough crossbedding, and so on) are not always preserved in shelf sediments because of the effects of bioturbation. Bioturbation is most intense in shallower water and is frequently more abundant in sandy sediment than in muddy deposits. This is because the currents that transport and deposit sand may also carry nutrients for benthic organisms living in the sand: many organisms also prefer to live on and within a sandy substrate. The abundance of calcareous shell material in shallow-marine sandstones makes calcium carbonate available within the strata when the beds are buried. Groundwater moving through the sediments dissolves and reprecipitates the carbonate as cement. Shelly fossils within sandstones are therefore sometimes found only as casts of the original form, as the original calcite or aragonite shells have been dissolved away. Sandstone beds deposited in shallow marine settings also typically have a calcite cement.

Shallow marine clastic environments

The patterns and characteristics of deposition on shelves and epicontinental seas with abundant terrigenous clastic supply are controlled by the relative importance of wave, storm and tidal processes. The largest tidal ranges tend to be in epicontinental seas and restricted parts of shelves, although in some situations the tidal ranges in narrow or restricted seaways can be very small. Open shelf areas facing oceans are typically regions with a microtidal to mesotidal regime and are affected by ocean storms. Two main types, storm-dominated shelves and tide-dominated shelves, can be recognised in both modern environments and ancient facies: these are end-members of a continuum and many modern and ancient shelves and epicontinental seas show influence of both major processes. The majority of modern shelves are storm dominated (80%): the remainder are mainly tide dominated (17%), with just a small number (3%) of shelves influenced mainly by ocean currents. These ocean-current-dominated shelves are generally narrow (less than 10 km) and lie adjacent to strong geostrophic currents: sandwaves and sand ribbons form on them, and as such they are similar to tidal shelves, but the driving current is not of tidal origin. The detailed characteristics of sands deposited on modern shelves can be determined directly only by taking shallow cores that provide a limited amount of information: indirect investigation by geophysical techniques, such as shallow seismic profiles, can also yield some information about the internal structures. Not all sandy deposits occurring on modern shelves have been formed by processes occurring in the present day: the sea-level rise in the past 10 k/yr, the Holocene transgression, has drowned former strand plain and barrier island ridges, along with sands deposited in the shoreface, leaving them as inactive relics in deeper water.
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