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Unravelling the microfacies signatures of parasequences using computer-optimized similarity matrices



The microfacies of a Lower Cretaceous carbonate drillcore from Oman are characterized using optimizing matrices of Jaccard's similarity coefficients of community. Other than systems tract boundaries, there is no obvious evidence of individual parasequences in the core. However, diagnostic patterns in microfossil distribution identify environmental gradients recording changes in water depth. These gradients are used to define individual parasequences, parasequence sets, stacking patterns and key surfaces. The patterns suggest that deposition was controlled by successive fourth- to fifth-order (high-frequency) relative sea-level cycles superimposed on an underlying third-order relative sea-level rise. Although the correlation of these depositional subunits to systematic changes in water depth and the rate of carbonate accumulation alone is not incontrovertible proof of such a sea-level control, concurrent multiorder relative sea-level cyclicity provides by far the most likely explanation. A microfacies deposited when the water depth was shallowing is characterized by a relay of microfossils with affinities that shallow upwards. Conversely, a microfacies that records a gradual increase in water depth has a relay of microfossils with affinities that deepen upwards. Microfacies characterized by an assemblage of microfossils with similar affinities record deposition when the benthic environmental conditions remained stable, either because of an equilibrium between shallow water carbonate deposition and rising sea level, or in deeper water where sediment composition was relatively insensitive to changes of water depth. Microfacies characterized by mixed affinity assemblages record syndepositional reworking. During periods of embedded multiorder sea-level changes, individual parasequences within systems tracts are shown to record more complex environmental gradients than simply the repetition of successive shallowing-up units as traditionally represented in carbonate sequence stratigraphic models. The microfacies of an individual parasequence may shallow up, or may record both deepening-up and shallowing-up depositional phases, as well as periods of sedimentation when benthic environments remained stable. Individual parasequence boundaries may be submarine or subaerial unconformities, or be conformable, as part of a predictable stratigraphic pattern related to the temporal position of an individual parasequence within the underlying third-order cycle of relative sea-level change. The hitherto ubiquitous use of assemblages to describe carbonate microfacies, coupled with the widespread use of the metre-scale shallowing-up template to identify parasequences, may have led to such complexities previously being overlooked.