Depositional framework and controls on mixed carbonate-siliciclastic gravity flows: Pennsylvanian-Permian shelf to basin transect, south-western Great Basin, USA


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    BP Exploration, PO Box 196612, Anchorage, AK 99519, USA.


Mixed carbonate-siliciclastic sediment gravity flow deposits of Late Pennsylvanian to Early Permian age are exposed in the Death Valley - Owens Valley region of east-central California. The Mexican Spring unit constitutes the upper part of the Keeler Canyon Formation and is characterized by turbidites, debris flow deposits and megabreccias, all of mixed carbonate-siliciclastic composition. The mixed composition of the Keeler Canyon Formation provides an opportunity to link facies architecture to controls on depositional system development. Depositional relationships indicate that the deposits represent a non-channellized base of slope carbonate apron system with inner, outer and basinal facies associations. These gravity flow deposits are characterized by repeated stacked, small scale (<15 m) coarsening and thickening upward cycles with superimposed medium scale (>100 m) coarsening and thickening upward cycles.

Contemporaneous outer shelf and upper slope deposits of the Tippipah Limestone are exposed at Syncline Ridge on the Nevada Test Site. The deposits consist of carbonate buildups directly overlain by cross bedded, quartz-rich sandstone and conglomerate which filled channels that traversed across the previously existing carbonate shelf. Detritus was transported to the west, down the upper slope by gully systems that fed the temporally persistent base of slope apron of the upper part of the Keeler Canyon Formation. This style of deposition differs from point-sourced siliciclastic submarine fan depositional systems. However, the Keeler Canyon system has lithofacies similar to some sandy siliciclastic turbidite systems, such as the delta-fed submarine ramp facies model, which is a line-sourced, shelf-fed system that is not supply limited.

The mixed clastic apron systems of the Keeler Canyon Formation differ from classical carbonate aprons in that the former is characterized by an abundance of sedimentary cycles. Controls on the development of these cycles and of the facies distribution may have resulted from changes in type and rate of sediment supply, relative sea level changes and/or tectonic events. Interpretation of the data is focused on relative changes in sea level as the most significant control on development of the depositional system. Relative sea level changes serve two important functions: (1) they provide a mechanism for bringing coarse siliciclastic and bioclastic grains together on the outer shelf, and (2) shelf margin collapse may be initiated during relative lowstands allowing for transport of the sediment to the deep basin and development of deep basinal cycles. Therefore, an abundance of mixed clastic gravity flow deposits such as these in the rock record may be an indicator of periods of high frequency changes in relative sea level, which is a characteristic of Late Palaeozoic sea level history.