Mud dispersal across a Cretaceous prodelta: Storm-generated, wave-enhanced sediment gravity flows inferred from mudstone microtexture and microfacies



Determining sediment transport direction in ancient mudrocks is difficult. In order to determine both process and direction of mud transport, a portion of a well-mapped Cretaceous delta system was studied. Oriented samples from outcrop represent prodelta environments from ca 10 to 120 km offshore. Oriented thin sections of mudstone, cut in three planes, allowed bed microstructure and palaeoflow directions to be determined. Clay mineral platelets are packaged in equant, face-face aggregates 2 to 5 μm in diameter that have a random orientation; these aggregates may have formed through flocculation in fluid mud. Cohesive mud was eroded by storms to make intraclastic aggregates 5 to 20 μm in diameter. Mudstone beds are millimetre-scale, and four microfacies are recognized: Well-sorted siltstone forms millimetre-scale combined-flow ripples overlying scoured surfaces; deposition was from turbulent combined flow. Silt-streaked claystone comprises parallel, sub-millimetre laminae of siliceous silt and clay aggregates sorted by shear in the boundary layer beneath a wave-supported gravity flow of fluid mud. Silty claystone comprises fine siliceous silt grains floating in a matrix of clay and was deposited by vertical settling as fluid mud gelled under minimal current shear. Homogeneous clay-rich mudstone has little silt and may represent late-stage settling of fluid mud, or settling from wave-dissipated fluid mud. It is difficult or impossible to correlate millimetre-scale beds between thin sections from the same sample, spaced only ca 20 mm apart, due to lateral facies change and localized scour and fill. Combined-flow ripples in siltstone show strong preferred migration directly down the regional prodelta slope, estimated at ca 1 : 1000. Ripple migration was effected by drag exerted by an overlying layer of downslope-flowing, wave-supported fluid mud. In the upper part of the studied section, centimetre-scale interbeds of very fine to fine-grained sandstone show wave ripple crests trending shore normal, whereas combined-flow ripples migrated obliquely alongshore and offshore. Storm winds blowing from the north-east drove shore-oblique geostrophic sand transport whereas simultaneously, wave-supported flows of fluid mud travelled downslope under the influence of gravity. Effective wave base for sand, estimated at ca 40 m, intersected the prodelta surface ca 80 km offshore whereas wave base for mud was at ca 70 m and lay ca 120 km offshore. Small-scale bioturbation of mud beds co-occurs with interbedded sandstone but stratigraphically lower, sand-free mudstone has few or no signs of benthic fauna. It is likely that a combination of soupground substrate, frequent storm emplacement of fluid mud, low nutrient availability and possibly reduced bottom-water oxygen content collectively inhibited benthic fauna in the distal prodelta.