Sedimentary Basins

Sedimentary Basins

The sedimentary veneer on the Earth’s surface varies greatly in thickness. If you stand in central Siberia or south-central Canada, you will find yourself on igneous and metamorphic basement rocks that are over a billion years old sedimentary rocks are nowhere in sight. Yet if you stand along the southern coast of Texas, you would have to drill through over 15 km of sedimentary beds before reaching igneous and metamorphic basement. Thick accumulations of sediment form only in special regions where the surface of the Earth’s lithosphere sinks, providing space in which sediment collects. Geologists use the term subsidence to refer to the process by which the surface of the lithosphere sinks, and the term sedimentary basin for the sediment-filled depression. In what geologic settings do sedimentary basins form? An understanding of plate tectonics theory provides the answers.

Categories of Basins in the Context  of Plate Tectonics Theory 

The geologic setting of sedimentary basins.
Geologists distinguish among different kinds of sedimentary basins in the context of plate tectonics theory. Let’s consider a few examples (figure above). 
  1. Rift basins: These form in continental rifts, regions where the lithosphere is stretching horizontally, and therefore thins  vertically. As the rift grows, slip on faults drops blocks of crust down, producing low areas bordered by narrow mountain ridges. These troughs fill with sediment. 
  2. Passive-margin basins: These form along the edges of continents that are not plate boundaries. They are underlain by stretched lithosphere, the remnants of a rift whose evolution successfully led to the formation of a mid-ocean ridge and subsequent growth of a new ocean basin. Passive-margin  basins form because subsidence of stretched lithosphere  continues long after rifting ceases. They fill with sediment carried to the sea by rivers and with carbonate rocks formed in coastal reefs. 
  3. Intracontinental basins: These develop in the interiors of continents, initially because of subsidence over a rift. They  may continue to subside in pulses even hundreds of millions of years after they formed, for reasons that are not well  understood. 
  4. Foreland basins: These form on the continent side of a mountain belt because the forces produced during convergence or collision push large slices of rock up faults and onto the surface of the continent. The weight of these slices pushes down on the surface of the lithosphere, producing a wedge-shaped depression adjacent to the mountain range that fills with sediment eroded from the range. Fluvial and deltaic strata accumulate in foreland basins.

Transgression and Regression 

Sea-level changes, relative to the land surface, control the succession of sediments that we see in a sedimentary basin. At times during Earth history, sea level has risen by as much as a couple of hundred meters, creating shallow seas that submerge the interiors of continents. At other times, sea level has fallen by a couple of hundred meters, exposing the continental shelves to air. Global sea-level changes may be due to a number of factors, including climate change, which controls the amount of ice stored in polar ice caps and causes changes in the volume of ocean basins. Sea level at a location may also be due to the local uplift or sinking of the land surface.

The concept of transgression and regression, during deposition of sedimentary sequence.
When relative sea level rises, the shoreline migrates inland. We call this process transgression. When relative sea level falls, the coast migrates seaward. We call this process regression (figure above). The process of transgression and regression leads to the formation of broad blankets of sediment.


Earlier we discussed the process of lithification, by which sediment hardens into rock. Lithification is an aspect of a broader phenomenon called diagenesis. Geologists use the term diagenesis for all the physical, chemical, and biological processes that transform sediment into sedimentary rock and that alter characteristics of sedimentary rock after the rock has formed. 
In sedimentary basins, sedimentary rocks may become very deeply buried. As a result, the rocks endure higher pressures and temperatures and come in contact with warm groundwater. Diagenesis, under such conditions, can cause chemical reactions in the rock that produce new minerals and can also cause cement to dissolve or precipitate.
As temperature and pressure increase still deeper in the subsurface, the changes that take place in rocks become more profound. At sufficiently high temperature and pressure, metamorphism begins, in that a new assemblage of minerals forms, and/or mineral grains become aligned parallel to each other. The transition between diagenesis and metamorphism in sedimentary rocks is gradational and occurs between temperatures of 150C and 300C. In the next chapter, we enter the realm of true metamorphism.
Credits: Stephen Marshak (Essentials of Geology)
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