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SEDIMENTOLOGY AND SEQUENCE

STRATIGRAPHY OF REEFS AND


CARBONATE PLATFORMS
A Short Course
by

Wolfgang Schlager

Free University, Amsterdam

Continuing Education Course Note Series #34

Published by
The American Association of Petroleum Geologists
Tulsa, Oklahoma U.S.A.

PREFACE
Classical sequence stratigraphy has been developed primarily
from siliciclastic systems. Application of the concept to carbonates has
not been as straightforward as was originally expected even though the
basic tenets of sequence stratigraphy are supposed to be applicable to
all depositional systems.
Rather than force carbonate platforms into the straightjacket of a
concept derived from another sediment family, this course takes a
different tack. It starts out from the premise that sequence stratigraphy
is a modern and sophisticated version of lithostratigraphy and as such
is a sedimentologic concept. "More sedimentology into sequence
stratigraphy" is the motto of the course and the red line that runs
through the chapters of this booklet.
The course sets out with a review of sedimentologic principles
governing the large-scale anatomy of reefs and platforms. It then looks
at sequences and systems tracts from a sedimentologic point of view,
assesses the differences between siliciclastics and carbonates in their
response to sea level, evaluates processes that compete with sea level
for control on carbonate sequences, and finally presents a set of
guidelines for application of sequence stratigraphy to reefs and
carbonate platforms.
In compiling these notes, I have drawn not only on literature but
also on as yet unpublished materials from my associates in the
sedimentology group at the Free University, Amsterdam. I
acknowledge in particular Hemmo Bosscher, Ewan Campbell, Juul
Everaars, Arnout Everts, Jeroen Kenter, Henk van de Poel, John
Reijmer, Jan Stafleu, and Flora Vijn.
The Industrial Associates Program in Sedimentology at the Free
University was instrumental in getting this course underway-through
stimulating discussions as well as by providing financial support.

CHAPTER 1

PRINCIPLES OF CARBONATE
SEDIMENTATION
latitude carbonate environments, the base of the
euphotic zone usually lies at 50-120m (Figure 1-3).
Temperature is the second dominant control on
carbonate production. Generally, warmer is better, but
there exists an upper temperature limit for all
carbonate organisms that sets important limits to
carbonate production, particularly in restricted
lagoons. The most important effect of temper-ature,
however, is the global zonation of carbonate deposits
by latitude (Figures 1-4 through 1-7). In spite of what
has just been said about the role of light, the
boundary of tropical and temperate carbonates seems
to be largely a function of winter temperature rather
than radiation.Throughout the Phanerozoic, this
boundary lay at approximately 30 latitude.
Nutrients. Contrary to common expectations, highnutrient environments are unfavorable for carbonate
systems (Figure 1-8). Nutrients, to be sure, are
essential for all organic growth, including that of
carbonate-secreting benthos. However, the carbonate
communities, particularly reefs, are adapted to life in
submarine deserts. They produce their organic tissue
with the aid of sunlight from the dissolved nitrate
and phosphate in sea water and are very efficient in
recycling nutrients within the system. In highnutrient settings, the carbonate producers are
outpaced by soft-bodied competitors such as fleshy
algae, soft corals or sponges. Furthermore, the
destruction of reef framework through bio-erosion
increases with increasing nutrient supply.
Growth potential of carbonate systems. Siliciclastic
depositional systems depend on outside sediment
supply for their accumulation. In carbonate settings, the
ability to grow upward and produce sediment is an
intrinsic quality of the system, called the growth
potential. Conceptually, one should distinguish
between the ability to build up vertically and track sea
level, the aggradation potential, and the ability to
produce and export sediment, the production potential.
The aggradation potential is particularly critical for
survival or drowning of carbonate platforms (Figure 19); the production potential is a crucial factor for the
progradation and retreat of carbonate platforms and
the infilling or starvation of basins.
The growth potential is different for the different

In order to prepare ourselves for application of


sequence stratigraphy to reefs and carbonate
platforms, we first have to understand how shallowwater carbonate accumulations are formed. We
therefore start out with an overview of basic rules that
govern production, distribution and deposition of
carbonate material in the marine environment. This
overview is selective and focuses on those principles
that are immediately relevant for the large-scale
anatomy and seismic signature of reefs and platforms.
Three basic rules capture the peculiar nature of
carbonate depositional systems-carbonate sediments
are largely of organic origin,the systems can build
wave-resistant structures and they undergo extensive
diagenetic alteration because the original minerals are
metastable. The implications of these rules are
pervasive. We will encounter them throughout the
chapters of this booklet, starting with this first
section, which briefly reviews the principles of
growth of reefs and production of sediments as well
as basic patterns in the anatomy of carbonate
accumulations.

Growth and production


"Carbonates are born, not made." This little phrase
by Noel P. James illustrates the fact that carbonate
growth and production are intimately tied to the
ocean environment with light, temperature and
nutrients exerting the most dominant controls.
Light intensity decreases exponentially with water
depth. Growth of organic tissue and carbonate
fixation can be related to this exponential decay via a
hyperbolic tangent function (Figures 1-1, 1-2). This
implies that there is a shallow zone of light
saturation, usually 10-20m, where light is not a
growth-limiting factor; below it, light is the
dominant control. The base of the euphotic zone is
defined by biologists as the level where oxygen
production by photosynthesis and oxygen
consumption by respiration are in balance. In the
geologic record, all environments with abundant
growth of photosynthetic organisms, such as green
algae or corals, are considered euphotic. In low1

Schlager

facies belts of a platform. Most important is the fact


that the growth potential of the rim is significantly
higher than that of the platform-interior facies. When
confronted with a relative sea-level rise that exceeds
the growth potential of the interior, a platform will
raise its rim and leave the lagoon empty ("empty
bucket").
Carbonate production commonly follows the law
of sigmoidal growth shown in Figure 1-10.
Communities respond to opening up of new living
space with a sigmoidal growth curve. Growth is slow
at first, then accelerates, often exceeding the rate of
change in the forcing function; finally, growth
decreases as the systems reaches the limits of the
newly formed niche. In carbonate sedimentology,
this pattern is known as the start-up, catch-up, keepup stages of growth (Neumann & Macintyre;1985)
and reef response to the Holocene sea-level rise is a
typical example of this rule (Figure 1-11). The law of
sigmoidal growth implies that the growth potential
of the system is significantly lower in the start-up
phase. In the Holocene, the effect lasts only 2000 to
5000 years. However, much longer lag effects have
been postulated after mass extinctions (e.g.
Hottinger, 1989, p.270).

Anatomy of reefs and carbonate platforms


In-situ production is the hallmark of carbonate
platforms. Any parcel of sea floor in the photic zone
acts as a source of sediment. Since production is
highest in the uppermost part of the water column
and the overlying terrestrial environment is inimical
to carbonates, platforms have a very strong tendency
to develop flat tops at sea level.
Rim-building. The tendency towards flat tops is
enhanced by the ability of tropical carbonate systems
to build wave-resistant structures, particularly at the
platform margins. Reefs are the most common
building blocks of platform rims, but carbonate sand
shoals, too, are able to build stable barriers by the
interplay of storm deposition and rapid lithification.
Thus reefs and shoals may alternate in the
construction of a platform rim. The presence of a rim,
often built to sea level, disrupts the seaward-sloping
surface normally developed by loose sediment
accumulations on a shelf. Rimmed platforms differ
fundamentally from siliciclastic shelves in this respect
(Figure 1-12). The growth anatomy of a rimmed
platform is that of a bucket-a competent, rigid rim
protects the loose sediment accumulation of the
platform interior (Figure 1-13). Because of the higher
growth potential of the rim, "empty buckets," i.e.,
raised rims and empty lagoons, are cohunonly found
in the geologic record.
The rapid decrease of carbonate production with
depth, in conjunction with the ability of reefs to hold

much of this growth in place, enables carbonate


systems to build rather steep relief. Depth-dependent,
in-situ growth may be an explanation for the
formation of steep forereef walls (Figures 1-14
through 1-16).
Despite the fact that platform rims can aggrade
faster than lagoons, many platforms backstep when
they come under stress. Figure 1-17 shows why
backstepping can be advantageous for platforms. The
basic principle is that the platform moves the margin
to a position where growth potential and relative sealevel rise are again in balance.
Platforms built from loose sediment without reef
construction or lithification at the shelf break are
called carbonate ramps (see Read, 1985 for review).
Ideally, ramp profiles are in equilibrium with the
seaward-dipping wave base and parallel those of
sediment-stuffed siliciclastic shelves (Figure 1-12a).
However, the term is often used loosely and some
rim-building is tolerated by most authors.
Slopes and rises. Slopes and debris aprons around
platforms are important elements of the edifice and
largely determine the extent and shape of the top.
These areas also act as sinks for much of the excess
sediment produced by the platform top. In sequence
stratigraphy, platform margins and slopes play a
crucial role as they hold much of the information on
lowstands of sea level.
Geometry and facies of slopes and rises are
governed by several rules that are summarized
below.
a) The volume of sediment required to maintain a
slope as the platform grows upward increases as a
function of platform height. The increase is
proportional to the square of the height for conical
slopes of isolated platforms, such as atolls, and it is
proportional to the first power of the height for linear
platform slopes.
b) The upper parts of platform slopes steepen with
the height of the slope, a trend that siliciclastics
abandon at early stages of growth. As a consequence,
the slopes of most platforms, notably the high-rising
ones, are steeper than siliciclastic slopes (Figures 1-19,
1-20). Changes in slope angle during platform growth
change the sediment regime on the slope, shifting the
balance between erosion and deposition of turbidity
currents. This in turn profoundly influences sediment
geometry on the slope and the rise (Figure 1-21).
c) The angle of repose of loose sediment is a
function of grain size. Engineers have quantified this
relationship for man-made dumps (Figure 1-22) and
the same numerical relationships have recently been
shown to apply to large-scale, geological features
(Figures 1-23 through 1-26; Kenter, 1990). The
important property seems to be the degree of
cohesion of the sediment. Changes in composition of
the sediment dumped on a slope may produce
unconformities as shown in Figure 1-27.

Principles of Carbonate Sedimentation 3

-- ----

I
I

--\ion\

I
I

.C I

I
:

.,. I

a.,

~I

~:

1:t
:,

,...-

op' oo
OJ

,/o

0,,/

,,o"'

<ID

~/

~0

o~~9

'

or;~

l ----------------------- ---~u_p_!l~!!~.!.9~~

E.

em

Fig.l-1. Change of light intensity (I) and organic


production (P) with water depth. Light displays a simple
exponential decrease with water depth. The curve of
organic production can be related via a hyperbolictangent function to light intensity; production shows a
shallow zone of light saturation, where light is not a
growth-limiting factor, followed by rapid decrease of
organic growth with water depth. After Bosscher &
Schlager (in press), modified.

c:

o/

o ,//

/
,/

o o

/,/'

,/
,l'
_./

/,

,,~

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o /

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('11

,''

tD

0 0

r
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,,l,

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o
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~~
/cP

80

q,

~::: ____________________ jilJ~!.~~~~r:!l_!i~~

0
00 0

,_ , /

;: /
: I
1
:I

00~

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~
<DOQO

'

,'

r!

r.,!

,.b

~I
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'
f'

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ra

E
>

"'u

I'

:
f
I

\n
:~t
:

t::

50

100

150

=-=::.

::~{

:;:::::

ill

~~~~:~~

:r::
::

::

~r

~i:
:~\

::;t
:}:

]::;'

:::::::

.l1

~ ~ li~

5.0

10.0

growth rate (mm/yr)

;::::;:
-:: ;:

:::
~:=:::

t;;:;Z

,:
.;.:

Jf:

:::;: :

~
--1
active reef growth
strongly reduced growth
max1mum depth

m
Cl

Fig.l-2. Predicted and observed values of coral growth vs.


depth. Dots: measured growth rates of Caribbean reef
coral Montastrea annularis; curves: growth rates predicted
by a light-growth equation for common values of water
turbidity in the Caribbean. Note zone of light saturation
and lower zone of decrease of growth with depth. The
good correspondence of observed and predicted values is
very encouraging. It indicates that below the saturation
zone, light is indeed the dominant control on carbonate
production and that existing equations are reasonable
approximations of reality. After Bosscher & Schlager (in
press), modified.

Fig.l-3. Depth limits of reef growth in the Caribbean.


Reef growth and growth of green algae are commonly
used to define euphotic zone in a geologically
reproducible way. After Vijn &: Bosscher, written comm.

Schlager
Fig.l-4. Coral growth versus solar radiation (a) and water
temperature (b). Note increase of growth with
temperature and poor correlation of coral growth with
radiation. After Bosscher & Schlager, written comm.

DATA FROM WEBER and WHITE 1974

4~----------------------------------~-420
480
510
450
AVERAGE SOLAR RADIATION

I
It

U'l
z

IN G CAUM2/DAY

..

::J

23

24

25

26

27

28

AVERAGE SURFACE WATER TEMPERATURE

29

30

IN'C

Fig.l-5. Distribution of recent coral reefs is limited in the


north and south by minimum winter temperatures. After
Bosscher & Schlager, written comm.

DISTRIBUTION OF CORAL REEFS

40

40

20

20

...

I'
-:..

20

...

:-~

.........

40

CORAL REEFS

6J

20 ISOTHERM

...
~!

C)'t?

'\

20

40

Principles of Carbonate Sedimentation 5

A
.....

<{

z
w :::>
u m
z <{

<l
0

::J

ID
<l

>

~
~

1<l
_I

w w
a: a::

<{

a::

oo

20
LATITUDE

REEF GROWTH
I-----OPTIMUM--- MARGINAL- -RARE----..!

MASSIVE

CORAL-ALGAL REEF
COMPLEXES

(/)
U)

REEF COMPLEXES
INTERMIXED WITH
BRYOZOAN- ALGAL
BIOSTROMES, SANDS,
BIOCLASTIC DEBRIS

BEDDED BRYOZOAN-ALGAL
BIOCLASTIC DEBRIS ~ REEF
GROWTH DURING CLIMATIC
OPTIMA

J:
1-

>

1<l
_I

a:

1oo

zo

3o

4o

LATITUDE
INDONESIA PHILIPPINE-MARIANAS
TAIWAN RYUKYUS -JAPANCORAL-ALGAL

REEF

-fy.(y~y

' ... ': ... . -'

BRYOZOAN-ALGAL
BIOCLASTIC DEBRIS

Fig.l-6. Latitudinal change from tropical to temperate carbonate facies in the northern Pacific (after Schlanger, 1981). Note
disappearance of reefs and decrease in thickness, indicating reduced production in temperate climate. (Reproduced with
permission of Society for Sedimentary Geology)

Schlager

A Salini1y.

B Maximum temperature. c

D Skeletll associations

C Minimum

tamper~ture,

a)
PHYSICAL WATER VARIABLES vs. LINEAR GROWTH

Fig.l-7. Carbonates in temperate latitudes and tropical


latitudes - a comparison. Figs A,B,C illustrate changes in
environmental conditions; Fig.D illustrates difference in
skeletal carbonate - temperate carbonates dominated by
benthic foraminifers and molluscs ("foramol"
association), tropical latitudes by green algae and corals
("chlorozoan" association); Fig.E shows that non-skeletal
grains are absent in temperate-water carbonates. After
Lees (1975). (Reproduced with permission of Elsevier
Science Publishers)

"C

b)

FOR MONT ASTREA ANNULARIS


DATA FROM TOMASCIK
aM BANDER 196!1

DATA FROM CORTES and RISK 1985

DODGE, ALLER and THOMSON 1974 b.

0~--~------------~--------~--~~~-----.1
.2
2
--------10
20
100
200
RESUSPENBION

MGICM210AY

2
B.P. M. MG/1.

Fig.l-8. Coral growth versus amount of resuspended sediment (a) and amount of suspended particulate organic matter (b).
Both variables are negatively correlated with reef growth. Suspended matter reduces light and, in the case of suspended
organic matter, also stimulates growth of organisms that compete with carbonate benthos. After Bosscher & Schlager
(written comm.).

Principles of Carbonate Sedimentation 7


FRI!QUENCY Of PLATFORM ACCUMULATION RATES

i
"

10

j~,

..

cooling oru11
Hatooane tewel

.,, dtnt

cL

lont-tlf'IR IMblldec

Tr Alpl

Apantn 'lalf.

Recent rat a.rala

Hotoc... ,.... (

H.ree I

.L

10-2010

()

eatta ..aa .Jur.-Rec.

oJHio

:;9

"""'

RU!S IN MM/IOOOYR ISUSNOI"I" UNITII

Fig.1-9. Carbonate growth rates and rates of (relative) sea-level rise. Open bars- Holocene, black- distant geologic past.
Short-term Holocene rates exceed long-term Phanerozoic rates by one order of magnitude, in agreement with the rule that
sedimentation rates increase as the duration of the observation interval decreases (e.g. Sadler, 1981). Based on the
Holocene and cyclostratigraphy in ancient formations, Schlager&: Bosscher (written comm.) estimate the average growth
potential of platforms in the time range of 1ol-1oS years at 300 -lOOOm/Ma. This short-term growth potential is relevant
for platform drowning: whether a platform drowns or survives a relative sea-level rise is determined in a short-term race
through the photic zone, whereby the zone of light-saturation in the top 10-20 m is most critical. It is, therefore, unlikely
that long-term, steady subsidence and third-order sea-level cycles, both typically at 10 -100 m/Ma, can drown healthy
reefs and platforms. Modified after Schlager (1981), Bosscher & Schlager (in press,a).

LAW OF SIGMOIDAL GROWTH

,~--------:-::-:.:-::-:SI!!k~..,~up~

,,
,,/

rapid

creation
of niche
J:

e
0

time-

Fig.l-10. Populations of organisms respond to the


opening up of new living space in three steps - first,
growth lags behind the creation of living space, second,
population growth exceeds the rate of change in space,
finally, population growth is limited by the rate of
growth in living space. Most carbonate systems are
controlled by organic growth and thus follow this law.

,,/
log
phase

c.tch up

I
<I

Ita-! uP "'

Schlager

CD

>

... _..

as
CD

C/)

llal
rubble

CD

C/)
Q)

....Q

1!!.

'

''

,_,. .,j

10

~
0
Q)

.D

nis lacles

C/)

.....

Q)
Q)

10

Q)

20

''

''

''

'

'

Alacran, Yucatan

I
I

\
\

Gt.Barrier Reef

\
\

'\

\
\

coral rubble and


sand lades

30

''

coral head
lacies

' ''

10
\

'

'

t
t
t

\
\

\
\
\

\
\
\
\

'1'

'

'

St.Crohc, Virgin Is.

\\
"''\\

Fig.1-11. Growth history of Holocene reefs. Note start-up, catch-up, and keep-up phase of growth, following the law of
sigmoidal growth. After Schlager (1981), Neumann & Macintyre (1985).

a)

/high onergy deposits, close to shore

SILICICLASTICS

b)

high-energy sand shoals and reels

moderato to high on orgy


shore (dependant on width
and depth of lagoon)

protocted lagoon

elevated by organic framebulfdlng


and ayndepositionallithification

'

.... SOFTFtANK\

'

mudJ rubble \
I

RIMMED PLATFORMS

Fig.1-12. Shore-to-slope profiles in carbonates and


siliciclastics. (a) Siliciclastics, abundant sediment supply.
Result is seaward dipping surface in equilibrium with
deepening wave base. (b) Rimmed carbonate platforms.
Wave-equilibrium profile grossly distorted by
construction of wave-resistant reefs and quickly
lithifying sand shoals, mainly at platform margin but also
elsewhere on platform (e.g. lagoonal patch reefs).
Platforms are basically dish-shaped and equilibrium
profiles develop only locally in parts of the lagoon.

I
1

soFrnu '
\sand,mud. ,'
',, __ ...... '

STIFF~IM

.......

/
I

\ organic: frt:IJI't&, /
' cement
'

Fig.1-13. Bucket principle. The growth anatomy of


rimmed carbonate platforms resembles a bucket, held
together by stiff rims of reefs or rapidly cemented sand
shoals, and filled with less consolidated sediments of
lagoons and tidal flats. Growth potential of a platform is
largely determined by the growth potential of the rim.
After Schlager (1981). (Reproduced with permission of
Geol. Society of America)

Principles of Carbonate Sedimentation 9

'

'

Fig.1-14. Reef wall of the barrier reef in Belize. It is unclear whether these walls are Pleistocene sea cliffs mantled by
Holocene reef or whether they are constructional features, formed by upward and outward growth of corals. In any case,
the walls illustrate the tendency of platforms to oversteepen their upper slopes. After James & Ginsburg (1979).

Schlager

10

200~----------------~--------------~

years B.P.

0
Belize Reef Wall

80000

k:O.OS;Ik:250;10:2000
Om:0.005
Rllllime 110000 yn
SUrfoce plocted ..ay 1000 yn

20.0

40.0

60.0

IO.U

100.0

140.0

120.0

meten

Fig.l-15. The rapid decrease of reef growth with depth


may explain the near-vertical reef walls. This computer
simulation attempts to duplicate the reef wall of Belize as
a series of reef shoulders formed during minor highstands
of sea level. After Bosscher & Schlager, in press.

,..,
0

40
fl)

<D
Q)

eo

120

160

10

YEARS B.P. &10


20
I

30
I

40

50
I

SeaLevel~

\ "'
~
!!

,i

...

'.
\

7{l

eoI

(\ f\

160

Fig.116. Conceptual model of James & Ginsburg (1979) that formed the basis for computer simulation in Fig.15.
Fig.l-17. Backstepping is a typical response of carbonate platforms to a relative rise of sea level that slightly exceeds the
platform's growth potential. There are several reasons why backstepping may be advantageous for a platform under stress.
(a) Backstepping reduces wave destruction of the margin, making it easier for the platform rim to grow upward. (b)
Platforms may step back to higher ground, such as an old shoreline. (c) Differential subsidence can be a reason for
backstepping of platforms when the outer, most rapidly subsiding part of the platform can no longer cope with sea-level rise.

Principles of Carbonate Sedimentat ion 11

A)

BACKST EPPING/ WAVE POWER

C construc tion

Ga C-D

D destruct ion

G reef growth

t?i:dZiSMHi:'1~:;,\(ittr!(t1~i~~f!!.-i\}J/XC-''??/!.!~/):\/:UJ(/:~~\i(i!_ ';,...

=decay of wave power by bottom friction


Airy waves, depth constant
(1)

B)

1
dH
=-gH4
dxV

H wave height

v wave phase velocity


g gravity accelera tion

BACKST EPPING ONTO HIGHER GROUND

sealevel rise

reefs

beach ridges
&dunes

lagoon
reef

BACKSTEPPING TO AREA OF LOWER SUBSIDENCE

C)

otential

CD

...en

distance from hinge line --+


hinge

zone

lws 1982

-:::;,;:<:.:::,.:::.

12

Schlager
Atoll "coM"

Platform "prJsm"

tana

W'Jlume y - ta':.a-

.oV,,.o~oincrrmtnfJ in olum ctlU51 by ~rtical growth All of platform or atoll

rolum~ofaloi/COM V 7Th'

oolumtof5i01Wprim y ...l!.:...l
of Jtngth "}
21CIIIfl

Jiiin1ii

growth a1 rolumo

IH ik hl

QroW/11 tJf ro/utM

If* :;;;k-hj

Fig.118. Upward growth of carbonate platforms with


constant slope requires deposition of ever larger volumes
of sediment on the flanks. In the case of a cone-shaped
atoll, the growth of volume (V) is proportional to the
square of the height of the cone. In case of a linear
platform margin, the growth of V is proportional to the
height of the platform. Real platforms probably fall
between these two extremes. The steady increase in slope
volume may limit the growth of very tall platforms such
as oceanic atolls. Smaller platforms seem to compensate
for this effect by increase in slope angle and/or rapid
filling of the basin. Schlager (1981). (Reproduced with
permission of Geol. Society of America)

_., __

...

Fig.119. Modem submarine slope angles of carbonate


platforms and siliciclastic systems in Atlantic and
Pacific. Contours of 1, 2 and 4% of total sample (N) in unit
area. N (carbonates) = 413, N (clastics) = 72. Carbonates
steepen with height by building slump-resistant slopes.
After Schlager &c Camber (1986). (Reproduced with
permission of Society for Sedimentary Geology)

pic.lo pordol

aaa pordol

600

2600

orm

400
200

2200

2000
alOO

2400

1500

1000

..

Ia locomotive

plz clavaces

500

..

.z;
tl

2600

400

2400
2200

basin

2000
2000

1500

1000

500

.E

t.re del sella

platform

2500

-.,
E

600

200

.,

.,...

distance In meters
Fig.1-20. Decrease in slope angle with decreasing slope height in a shoaling basin (Triassic, Southern Alps, Italy). This
fossil example confirms the trend observed in modem slopes (Fig.1-18). (Reproduced with permission of Blackwell
Scientific Publ.)

"i
.z;

Principles of Carbonate Sedimentation 13

Angle vs. depositional regime


EROSION
Bahama Escarpment

> 25

~====~Jt----~~~---7\' ,~~0
\

\
\

NEUTRAL
(sand bypassilg)
Exuma transect ODP

.?""

gravel

sand/silt

10-12

Fig.1-22. Grainsize vs. angle of internal friction for dry


sediments. (Angle of repose is considered equal to angle
of internal friction at zero confining pressure). This
relationship explains much of the difference in slope
angle of coarse, mud-free slope sediments and muddy
slopes. After Kirkby (1987), modified.

ACCRETION
Blake transect ODP

2-3

WELL DOCUMENTED EXAMPlES (GROUP A)

EXAWPLES LACKING PRECISE CONTROL ON GEOMETRY (GROUP B)

6,

FLANKS STABILIZED BY ORGANIC FRAMEBUILDING OR

CEMENTAT;~:OUP

Fig.l-21. Slope angle and the balance of erosion and


deposition on slopes. As slope angle increases the vigor
of turbidity currents increases too and changes the
depositional regime on the slope from accretion to
erosion. By-pass slopes represent an intermediate stage.
They receive mud from the perennial rain of sediment,
whereas coarse material travelling in large turbidity
currents is swept farther into the basin. After Schlager &
Camber (1986).

DOMINANT SEDIMENT.FABRIC

Fig.l-23. Sediment composition strongly influences slope


angles of carbonate platform flanks. Cohesionless
sediments, such as clean sand and rubble, build up to
angles of over 40. Muddy, cohesive sediments tend to
develop large slumps that maintain a low slope angle.
After Kenter (1990). (Reproduced with permission of
Blackwell Scientific Publ.)

14

Schlager

.-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------~~~
akm

f---1---+-~-il

common dopth pOinla

LIIB-111

modern gully

erosion surface

slump mass

Fig.1-24. Profile of slope with muddy cohesive sediment. Characteristics are gentle slope angle and large-scale slumps
with toe thrusts at the distal end of the slope. Northern flank of Little Bahama Bank, after Harwood &: Towers (1988) and
Kenter (1990). (Reproduced with permission of Ocean Drilling Program and Blackwell Scientific Publishers) .

. ~ ..

!.

blae-a-Mo~M

Mdlmlnt

ipfon

mid-slope

....

Fig.l-25. Large-scale slumps on muddy slope in plan


view. Note combination of slump scars on the slope and
turbidite aprons at the basin margin. After Harwood &
Towers (1988). (Reproduced with permission of Ocean
Drilling Program)

Principles of Carbonate Sedimentation 15

NNE 024

ssw

INTERPRETATION CROSS-SECTION VAL DE MESOI, NORTHERN SELLA

204

platform
atructureleaa zone

meters

200

100

500

300

200

100

Fig.1-26. Profile of platform slope composed of non-cohesive sediment, i.e. sand and rubble with little or no mud. Slumps
are small and express themselves as numerous small-scale truncations. Overall bedding remains steep and sub-parallel.
Triassic Sella platform, Dolomites, Italy. After Kenter (1990). (Reproduced with permission of Blackwell Scientific Publ.)

16

Schlager

a
CARBPLAT

runtime: 2000 yrs timestep: 100 yrs


platform height: 50 m platform width: 400 m
Gmargin: 10 mmtyr Ginlerior: 4 mm/yr k: 0.2/m
initial depth: 2 m linear sea-level rise: 3 mm/yr
wavebase: 10 m minangle/maxangle: 5135 degrees
width of section: 330 m

unconformity caused by
change in sediment composition

b
sea level

windward slope

leeward slope

Fig.l-27. Grain-size-related unconformity in model and


outcrop. (a) Computer program CARBPLAT (Bosscher &
Southam, 1992) takes results of Kenter (1990) into account
and assigns different angles of repose to rubbly sand and
mud. This produces an unconformity on the slope of a
continuously growing platform. At first, the platform
grows with an empty lagoon and thus sheds only sand
and rubble from its reef margin. Subsequently, the
lagoon fills up and exports large volumes of mud; this
mud buries the reef talus at a more gentle slope angle. (b)
Sediment geometry of the modem fore-reef slopes of
Bahamian platforms as observed in submersible dives by
Grammer et al. (1990) and Grammer (1991). Mud wedge
unconformably overlies reef rubble and the situation
closely resembles the model predictions of Bosscher &
Southam (1992).

CHAPTER2

THE STANDARD FACIES BELTS

Irrespective of geologic time and setting, shallowwater carbonates have a strong tendency to develop
similar facies belts. These facies can be grouped into a
platform model (Figure 2-1), best summarized by Wilson (1975). Important specifics on particular facies
have been added from other authors.
1A) DeepSea
Setting: Below wave base and below euphotic zone;
part of deep sea, i.e. reaching through the thermocline
into the realm of oceanic deep water.
Sediments: Entire suite of deep-sea sediments such
as pelagic clay, siliceous and carbonate ooze,
hemipelagic muds including turbidites; adjacent to
platforms we find mixtures of pelagic and platformderived materials in the form of peri-platform oozes
and muds.
Biota: Predominantly plankton, typical oceanic
associations. In peri-platform sediments up to 75%
shallow-water benthos.
1B) Cratonic deep-water basins
Setting: Below wave base and below euphotic zone
but normally not connected with the oceanic deepwater body.
Sediments: Similar to 1A but in Mesozoic-Cenozoic
rarely ever pelagic day; hemipelagic muds very common; occasionally anhydritic; some chert; anoxic conditions common (lack of bioturbation, high organic
content).
Biota: Predominantly nekton and plankton,
coquinas of thin-shelled bivalves (Posidonia type),
sponge spicules.
2) Deep shelf
Setting: Below fair-weather wave base but within
reach of storm waves, within or just below euphotic
zone; forming plateaus between active platform and
deeper basin (these plateaus are commonly established on top of drowned platforms).
Sediments: Mostly carbonate (skeletal wackestone,
some grainstone) and marl, some silica; well bioturbated, well bedded.
Biota: Diverse shelly fauna indicating normal
marine conditions. Minor plankton.
3) Toe-of-slope apron
Synonyms: lower slope, deep shelf margin.
Setting: Below air-weather wave base, below
euphotic zone; debris apron formed by sediment

gravity transport at the toe-of-slope in an oceanic or


cratonic basin or on the proximal part of a deep shelf.
Sediments: Lime mud, somewhat siliceous, with
intercalations of debris flows and turbidites in the
form of microbreccias and graded beds of lime rubble,
sand and silt.
Biota: Mostly re-deposited shallow-water benthos,
some plankton and deep-water benthos.
4) Slope (Figures 1-18 through 1-27)
Synonym: foreslope of platform
Setting: Strongly inclined sea floors (over 1.4) seaward of the platform margin.
Sediments: Mostly pure carbonates, rare intercalations of terrigenous mud. Grain size highly variable
from mud to rubble (end members are gentle muddy
slope with much slumping and sandy slope with
steep, planar foresets).
Biota: Mostly redeposited shallow-water benthos,
some deep-water benthos and plankton.
5) Reefs of platform margin (Figures 2-2, 2-3)
Setting: (I) Organically stabilized mud mounds on
upper slope or (II) ramps of knoll reefs and skeletal
sands or (III) wave-resistant barrier reefs rimming the
platform.
Sediments: Almost pure carbonate of very variable
grain size. Most diagnostic are masses or patches of
boundstone or framestone, internal cavities with fillings of cement or sediment, multiple generations of
construction, encrustation and boring and destruction.
Biota: Almost exclusively benthos. Colonies of
framebuilders, encrusters, borers along with large volumes of loose skeletal rubble and sand.
6) Sand shoals of platform margins (Figure 2-3)
Setting: Elongate shoals and tidal bars, sometimes
with eolianite islands; above air-weather wave base
and within euphotic zone, strongly influenced by tidal
currents.
Sediments: Clean lime sands, occasionally with
quartz; partly with well-preserved cross bedding,
partly bioturbated.
Biota: Worn and abraded biota from reefs and associated environments, low-diversity in-fauna adjusted
to very mobile substrate.
7) Platform interior-normal marine
Setting: Flat platform top within euphotic zone and
normally above fair-weather wave base; called lagoon
17

18

Schlager

when protected by sand shoals, islands and reefs of


platform margin; sufficiently connected with open sea
to maintain salinities and temperatures close to those
of adjacent ocean.
Sediments: Lime mud, muddy sand or sand,
depending on grain size of local sediment production
and the efficiency of winnowing by waves and tidal
currents; patches of bioherms and biostromes. Terrigenous sand and mud may be common in platforms
attached to land, absent in detached platforms such as
oceanic atolls.
Biota: Shallow-water benthos with bivalves, gastropods, sponges, arthropods, foraminifers and algae
particularly common.
8) Platform interior-restricted
Setting: As for facies 7, but less well connected with
open ocean so that large variations of temperature and
salinity are common.
Sediments: Mostly lime mud and muddy sand,
some clean sand; early diagenetic cementation common; terrigenous influx common.

usr

OPEN SU
SHHF

I
- 1110 lflTS

OUP SHUF

uau

fORESlOPf

ORGANIC
IUILD UP

,......._

~-

r-"\

'
,.......,.

'

"'"':
........
'

II\

. :

VI RY MAR ROll tH TS
DElliS FlOIIS
AND TURIIDITU
,. fll[
UHIWATl
STUU.
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IOE OF SlOPE.

GIANT TAlUS
ILOCU,
UfllUD
lUG[
UYiliU.

DOMISLOP[
IIOUIOS.

mn lw;mm.

~m:nmN
m~r

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NOUWOS.

ur ous.

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rucuc AID
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,-..... ,..,.. -~ ,.
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r---~

SHElF UGOON
OP1
CIRCUlATION

IIINROIIfD
EDGE SUDS

r"

.......-:::.-::CS~ ~

Biota: Shallow-water biota of reduced diversity, but


commonly with very large numbers of individuals;
typical are cerithid gastropods, miliolid foraminifers.
9) Platform interior-evaporitic
Setting: as in facies 7 and 8, yet with only episodic
influx of normal marine waters and an arid climate so
that gypsum, anhydrite or halite may be deposited
besides carbonates. Sabkhas, salt marshes and salt
ponds are typical features.
Sediments: Lime mud or dolomite mud along with
nodular or coarse-crystalline gypsum or anhydrite;
intercalations of red beds and terrigenous eolianites in
land-attached platforms.
Biota: Little indigenous biota except blue-green
algae, occasional brine shrimp, ostracodes, mollusks.
The standard model says nothing about windwardleeward differentiation. Most platforms develop
asymmetries in response to dominant wind directions
(Figures 2-4, 2-5). Seismic surveys reveal these asymmetries better than most other techniques.

!;

IIIDE tflTS
ISLUOS,
DUNES,
IAIIIU IUS,
'ASSES All
tHAllUS.

Tl DAL DELTAS.
LUOONAL
PDIDS,
TY'IUl SKUF
IIOUIDS,

COUIIWU
AlCAL !IUS,
CHARNELS liD
TIDAL IUS
OF lllll SAIID.

TIDAL fUTS.
CNUIELS
IATUIAL
lUllS,
POIDS.
AliAL IIAT

arns.

ARHYDIIU
DOIIES.
JEP[[ SnutTlM1
UIIIWATU
UUSTS OF
IYPSUII.
SAUIAS
(UAPOWAfJU

li=

cmmmn ~
PU.DS)

SAUIIAS

Z IIICIICIIIOCWTII
4 IIOCUSTJC
1 IGUIDSTONI
I ~~~~~~TIC
CALCJSILT
I COATED,
ll TIIOCI.ASTIC
I IIHOLE SHELLS J PIUCIC
IIORII,
"IC-CCIA.
Ill IIICRITE
IJCIITE
IIOCUSIIC
liTIIDCI.ASIIC
9 IIOCLASTIC
4 IIIIClASTIC
GUJISTOI.
CDIIGI.OIIIIAT. !COQUINA
JIIICKESTOIII:
liTHDCUSJIC
0 COAT to
"JCIIOeii[CC lA
(SHELL USN)
5 IIOCLASTIC
IAOIOUIII CUllS II
IUIISTDIE
SHAlE
lUCillE
PACISTOIII.
FlOAT STOll.

I SPICULIT
Z IICIDIIOCUSTIC
tALC !Silt
3 PElAIIC
IUCIIT(

I IEIF

RUDSTOII.

'mm"~g
CUINSTOIII

ltDQUUA
(SNIU MSN)
3 OIIOIDAl
IJOtlASTIC
UAIISTOIE
e Ul IIIECCIA
S OOliTE

1B VHOll SMELLS II, !r, II


~m:m?LITIC
,. llltalll
ltr1ESTUl
~ IIOCUSTIC
PUOIIAL
~ utAu,
VAUESTOII
PHil IIICIITE
UIIIIUI
otOA10
llltllll
WODUUI-PUil
QUillS II
HUDSfOIIE U
UTUOLITMIC
UAII[lS
"IUITE
AIIIYDIIIU.
I 'IUPUIT[
1 PGIIIOSTIM
711APUTOII
SELUITE
IJCIIIU
OIIOJDS II
ILADES IN
J 101 lAIIIIAT
IIICIITI.
IIICIIf
PUll[ IIICIITI
UllOIIAl
MSYCUIIM:EM
IIICIITE
CUINSTOIIE

.,.....,

..

I
!

!
.."'
~

Fi~ure 2-1. Synopsis of standard facies belts reviewin~ second-order bodies of sediment and standard
m1crofacies associated with each belL (Reproduced with permission of Springer Verlag)

Figure 2-3. Rimmed margins are common in carbonate platforms and re~uire certain adjustments in seismic
statigraphic techniques. Reefs are important rim builders (a), but early-hthified stacked sand shoals can be
equally efficient in defending platform margins (b). (After James & Macintyre, 1985. Reproduced with
permission of Colorado School of Mines Press)

The Standard Facies Belt 19

a)

b)

REEF MOSAIC

ATTACHI!D II!GIIENTI!D
CAI.CAJIIEOUI IIENTHOI

BAFFLES TONE

BINDSTONE

FRAMESTONE

CAVITIES
WITH INTE-L

llf:DIIIENT

OOIIIAL a IIAIIIYI
III!TAZOA

REEF
LIMESTONE

FLOATSTONE

RUDSTONE

Figure 2-2. Recognition of ecologic reefs in the geologic record depends on a variety of features; most of them
require outcrops or cores as an observational basis. This sketch illustrat~s characteristic aspects of reefs. Note
particularly the multiple successions of different encrusters and frame builders as well as cavities with
mtemal sediment and cement. Obviously, outcrops or cores, not seismic profiles, are required to apply these
criteria. (After James & Macintyre, 1985. Reproduced with permission of Colorado School of Mines Press)

SHOAL - RIMMED
PLATFORM

REEF - RIMMED
PLATFORM

REEF - RIMMED
PLATFORM

20

Schlager

WINDWARD

I!DGI!

PRO FILl!

A -0

I GEN(RAI..ISEDI

Figure 2-4. Sediment tvpes and patterns on Bu Tini Shoal. (From Purser et al., 1973). Windward-leeward
asymmetries such as this one probably are common in the geologic record. Seismic grids are one of the best
techniques to reveal them. (Reproduced with permission of Springer Verlag)

The Standard Facies Belt 21

ROCK RIDGE (EOLIAN?)

HCX...OCEf\E SAND

HOLOCEI\E REEF

~ PLEISTOCENE ROCK

500M~:

I}}DI

HOLOCENE SAIII>

~ HOLOCEI\E REEF
~ PlEISTOCENE ROCK

Figure 2-5. Windward and leeward platform mar~ins in the Bahamas-a comparison. Note active reef growth
along windward margin (upper panel), reefs buned in sediment on leeward margin (off-bank sediment
transport). After Hine & Neumann (1977).

CHAPTER3

RHYTHMS AND EVENTS IN


CARBONATE DEPOSITIO N
Shallow water carbonates rarely ever accumulate in
a uniform, steady fashion. Rather, the record shows a
hierarchy of rhythms on time scales of thousands to
hundreds of millions of years. These rhythms are
punctuated by singular events and overprinted by the
unidirectional changes of organic evolution. Below we
briefly discuss some of these patterns and processes.
They fall outside the domain of classical sequence
stratigraphy but we believe that the seismic stratigrapher should be aware of them as they may well influence sediment production and sequence anatomy in
reefs and carbonate platforms.

in many instances (e.g., Fischer, 1964; Read & Goldhammer, 1988; Goldhammer et al., 1990; ). These observations imply that the frequency bands of orbital cycles
and stratigraphic sequences broadly overlap and the
two approaches complement each other.

Autocycles
Under most circumstances, depositional systems
respond rhythmically to linear forcing, i.e. they fall
behind, then catch up, overshoot, and fall behind
again (Figures 3-2 and 3-3). Besides this non-linear
response of an entire system in the time domain, we
also find space rhythms within a system-mud banks,
tidal passes, delta lobes etc. typically form rhythmic
patterns in space. Migration of these spatial patterns
can also produce a rhythmic sediment record (see Figure 3-4). Both effects have been invoked to explain
rhythmicity in the geologic record. The notion of autocyclicity is !Particularly popular for short time periods
of 103-10 years, the typical domain of parasequences. However, there is no reason to dismiss autocyclicity as an explanation for longer-term rhythms in
the geologic record. The emphasis on short-term autocyclicity is probably an artefact of our strong observational bias towards the Holocene.

Milankovitch cycles
The perturbations of the Earth's orbit, their influence on climate, sea level and the sediment record
have received much attention recently. Reefs and platforms are particularly sensitive to Milankovitch forcing because they respond to both sea-level cycles as
well as environmental change driven by the orbital
perturbations. Sea-level signals are best recorded in
the shallow lagoons and tidal flats of the bank tops.
Figure 3-1 illustrates that this record strongly depends
on the interference of various frequencies (as well as
on subsidence). At slow subsidence (and large amplitudes in the low frequencies) the record may be erratic
in spite of regular orbital forcing. The most pronounced orbital cycles have periods of ca. 20,000 to
400,000 years, but the full spectrum of orbital perturbations ranges from 101 to 106 years.
Orbital cyclostratigraphy is a rather sophisticated
technique and we lack the time to adequately cover it in
this course (see Fischer & Bottjer, 1991 and Goldhammer et al., 1991 for overviews). However, the approach
has great potential in stratigraphy and is rapidly
expanding into the realm of sequence stratigraphy.
Recently, many sequence stratigraphers reported much
higher numbers of sequence boundaries than previously observed. For instance, Van Wagoner et al. (1990,
p.52) estimate that type-1 unconformities are spaced at
intervals of 100,000-150,000 years and that global
curves such as the one by Haq et al. (1987) refer to sets
of sequences. The carbonate record confirms this notion

Organic evolution
The organic origin of most carbonate sediment
makes carbonate depositional systems especially sensitive to evolutionary changes in the biota. Figures 3-5
and 3-6 depict some of these changes for reef biota. It
is likely that they modulate the growth potential and
the growth geometry of reefs and platform margins,
governing the distribution of, for instance, drowning
events or progradation phases through time. Bosscher
& Schlager (in press) found that the observed maximum accumulation rates of platforms go through a
minimum in the wake of mass extinctions of reef
biota, suggesting some evolutionary control on the
carbonate growth potential. James & Bourque (in
press) emphasize the difference between reef-building

22

Rhythms and Events in Carbonate Deposition 23

and mound-building platforms and their irregular


distribution through time.
Chem~cal

evolution

The composition of the ocean and atmosphere is


determined largely by the rates of recycling and plate
motion. Fischer (1982) proposed that during the
Phanerozoic, the Earth has oscillated between an icehouse state with cold poles and maximum latitudinal
temperature gradients and a greenhouse state with

warm poles and reduced temperature gradients. Fischer argued for an endogenic control of the icehouse-greenhouse cycle, because it seems to correlate
with variations of magmatic activity and sea-floor
spreading. Figure 3-7 shows that the calcite/aragonite
ratio in carbonates also seems to vary in accordance
with the icehouse-greenhouse cycle. In this way, the
growth potential of carbonate systems as well as their
potential for diagenetic alteration may be tied to
changes in the ocean environment. (See Chapter 6 for
follow-up.)

Fl SCHER CYCLES
PERIODIC PLATfORM CARBONATE DEPOSITION
IN TUNE TO MILANKOVITCH RHYTHMS

> P SUAE

DEPOSITION

Of PLAlFOIIM

ON PLATfORM

APERIODIC PLATFOIU4 CARBONATE DEPOSIT I ON


WITH MILANKOVITCH SEA LEVEL OSCILLATIONS
TIME
--200,000 Vll---100,000 Y l l - - - - 0 V I I -

Figure 3-1. Scenarios for deposition of carbonate


cycles dictated by Milankovitch rhythms. The top
panel shows the drowning and exposure of a
carbonate platform due to glacio-eustasy produced
by superimposition of 20,000-year and 100,000-year
Milankovitch pulses. Small variations in the
amplitude of the 100,000-year pulse produce
bundling of tidal-flat cycles into clusters of five.
With large variations in the amplitude of the
100,000-year pulse, as in the Pleistocene, deposition
on carbonate platforms is likely to be erratic and
will not easily reveal the Milankovitch control, as
depicted in the lower panel. (After Hardie & Shinn,
1986. Reproduced with permission of Colorado
School of Mines Press)

24

Schlager

Q) DROWNING (SUBSIDENCE CARBONATE


<:;:::J SHORE LINE TRANSGRESSES

@ PROGRADATION

PRODUCTION)

(CARBONATE PRODUCTION > SUBSIDENCE)

.. , ...
LAGOON CARBONATE FACTORY AND
DISPERSAL SYSTEM IN FULL OPERATION

w
u
2
w
0
(f)

w
~

1-

CD
~
(f)

@PROGRADATION STALLED !CARBONATE PRODUCTION~ SUBSIDENCE)


CARBONATE FACTORY TOO SMALL
SUPRATIDAL CAP
FF'I lENT OPERATION
..... . , ..~-.
A-B-C SHALLOWING UPWARD SEQUENCE

(f)

:J
0
~

i=

0
u

DROWNING (SUBSIDENCE CARBONATE PRODUCTION)

~SHORELINE TRANSGRESSES
WATER TOO SHALLOW FOR EFFICIENT OPERATION OF' CARJ_ONATE FACTORY

@PROGRADATION (CARBONATE PRODUCTION > SUBSIDENCE)


~ SHORELINE PROGRADE$
OMISSION SURFACE (SUBTIDAL
L_ DIRECTLY ON SUPRATIDAL)
_.. .. 'I'.
. ..

STACKING OF A-8-C SHALLOWING UPWARD SEOUEttCES

Figure 3-2. The autocyclic model of R.N. Ginsburg. Ginsburg (1971) proposed an autocyclic model that
elegantly explains superimposed A-B-C shallowing-upward sequences m platform carbonates. The model
calfs on continuous, steady basinal subsidence coupled with carbonate sediment supply rates that are selfregulated by the extent of progradation. The crux of the model lies in the recognition that carbonate sediment
production rate will fall behind subsidence rate as progradation drastically reouces the size of the shelflagoon "factory'' (see above), and will not recover until the lagoon once again becomes deep enough (due to
subsidence) to allow efficient carbonate production and sediment dispersal (perhaps 1-2 meters). This factor
introduces an automatic lag time in deposition so that subtidal sediments lie directly on supratidal sediments.
(Hardie & Shinn, 1986. Reproduced with permission of Colorado School of Mines Press)

Rhythms and Events in Carbonate Deposition 25

AUTOCYCLES OF SEDIMENT SYSTEMS

linear forcing by

sea level

\\

rythmlc response

of sedimentation

horizontal distance - .

EveRAARs et at.

time-.
Figure 3-3. Examples of autocycles on platforms generated by the computer program MAPS of Demicco &
Spencer (1989). C)_cles consist of shoaling-upward sequences with supratidal flats (dark) and subtidal (light
gray). Autocyclictty is poorly understood and may operate also on time scales of millions rather than
thousands of years.

Erosion of
foreshore

& shoreface
_ _ _ Newly prograded
mud coastline

5m

layers

Discontinuities

VERTICAL

IXAOGf."'ATtON

10 0.

Figure 3-4. Autocycles generated by migrating mud banks on the coast of Suriname. Stacking of sediment
from migrating mud banks creates on the shoreface a vertical sequence of laminated and bioturbated muds
with discontinuity features and on the coastal plain a horizontal sequence of mud marshes and sand cheniers.
Average duration of a cycle is 30 years. (After Rine & Ginsburg, 1985. Reproduced with permission of Society
for Sedimentary Geology)

26

Schlager

PERIODS

MAJOR SKELETAL ELEMENTS

BIOHERMS
6

tn

..J
..J

ztn

CORALS

I
I

-a:
4(

~~

uo
-

300

REEFS

t-~o~.

CJ

0
..J
0

REEF

C)

OUNDS

UJ

PRECAMB
Figure 3-5. An idealized stratigraphic column representing the Phanerozoic and illustrating times when there
appear to have been no reefs or bioherms (gaps), times when there were only reef mounds, and times when
there were both reefs and reef mounds. Bars on right side indicate occurrence of "empty buckets.'' They tend
to coincide with intervals of full reef development. Arrows represent times of important faunal extinctions
with the potential to generate sequence boundaries (after James, 1983).

CYCLE II
CYCLE I

UOISTS

Figure 3-6. A generalized plot of the main biotic


constituents of carbonate buildups against time for
the Phanerozoic. The balloons represent the relative
abundance and importance of the different taxa
(from James, 1983). (James and Macintyre, 1985.
Reproduced with permission of Colorado School of
Mines Press)

Rhythms and Events in Carbonate Deposition 27

ICEHOUSE

GREENHOUSE
"- CLIMATIC EPISOOES
'-.:.FISCHER
SEA LEVL FLUCTIJA TIONS
HALLAM
VAIL. ET AL.

Hlgh-Mg Calcl11 and, 1111 abvndatttly. Aragonite

II Cttclle; Mg content oenarelly lower. lncraano towtrd

"ThtllhOid"

Figure 3-7. Icehouse-greenhouse cycles of the


Phanerozoic are correlated to change in
composition of inorganic carbonate precipitates and
to mineralogy of organic carbonate production.
This illustrates the close connection between
carbonate production and ocean environment.
(After Fischer, [1982], Sandberg [1985]. Reproduced
with permission of Macmillan Magazines Ltd.)

CHAPTER4

SEQUENCES AND SYSTEMS TRACTSA SEDIMENTOLOGIC VIEW


Stratigraphic sequences and systems tracts as
defined in sequence stratigraphy (Figure 4-1) are
lithostratigraphic concepts and as such interpretable
in sedimentologic terms. We believe that sedimentologic analysis is the most appropriate way to reveal
the primary controls behind a certain feature of
sequence stratigraphy. This, in turn, allows one to
assess the role of sea level and other factors in building the sequence record.
When sedimentologic analysis is performed, it
turns out that very often sea level is not the only process that may generate sequences and systems tracts.
The classical interpretation of sequences and systems
tracts in terms of sea-level cycles (Figure 4-2) is a possible, but generally not a unique solution. In particular, changes in volume and composition of sediment
will often have similar effects as sea-level fluctuations
(Figure 4-3). Whether these alternative controls do
apply, has to be determined specifically for each
instance. Chapter 6 discusses examples of sequences
created not by sea level but by other processes. Here,
we will examine some pivotal concepts and terms of
sequence stratigraphy and seismic stratigraphy to
improve our understanding of their genesis.

formities." Sequence boundaries are defined as


"observable discordances in a given stratigraphic section that show evidence of erosion or nondeposition
with obvious stratal terminations, but in places they
may be traced into less obvious paraconformities recognized by biostratigraphy or other methods."
At this point, it is again useful to consider the
basic sedimentologic meaning of seismic unconformities: they represent changes in the pattern of sediment input and dispersal in the basin (Schlager et al.
1984, p.725; Schlager 1989; see Galloway, 1989, for
similar emphasis on "reorganization"). Sea level is
an important control on input and dispersal patterns,
but so are tectonic changes in sea-floor topography,
tectonic changes in the hinterland [drainage patterns], Figure 4-6), changes in ocean environment
(Figures 4-5, 6-6) and autocyclic processes in sedimentation (Figures 3-3, 3-4).
This sedimentologic interpretation of sequence
boundary is compatible with the definition of
sequence and sequence boundary by Vail et al. (1977,
p.53). It is meant as a complement rather than a
replacement of the original definition. A growing
number of basin studies reveal a rather complex interplay of eustasy, regional tectonics and sedimentologic
processes as control on depositional sequences (e.g.
Underhill, 1991). The original definition along with
the above interpretation are broad, yet specific
enough to address this superposition of effects.
Van Wagoner et al. (1988) restrict the term unconformity and sequence boundary to surfaces that
include significant subaerial exposure. This burdens
the term with a genetic connotation that is often difficult to verify in the field and nearly impossible to verify in seismics. Furthermore, this restrictive definition
of sequence boundary "defines away" any alternative
to sea level in the interpretation of sequences and
sequence boundaries (see Schlager, 1991, for discussion). The successful application of sequence-stratigraphic techniques to terrestrial deposits far removed
from fluctuating sea level or lake levels, merits mention in this context (e.g. Hanneman & Wideman,
1991). It illustrates that packaging of sediment accumulations into unconformity-bounded sequences is a

The sequence boundary


Despite the subdivision of sequences into systems
tracts and the recognition of other surfaces (such as
the maximum flooding surface), the unconformable
sequence boundary has remained the key element in
sequence stratigraphy. The limited resolution of seismic profiles very often does not allow one to identify
the systems tracts. What generally can be done, however, is to recognize sequences and sequence boundaries as unconformities and sediment packages with
internally coherent bedding patterns respectively.
We strongly recommend using the original definition of sequence and sequence boundary by Mitchum
in Vail et al. (1977, p.531). Mitchum defines sequence
as "a stratigraphic unit composed of a relatively conformable succession of genetically related strata and
bounded by unconformities or their correlative con-

28

Sequence and Systems Tracts 29

general principle that only happens to have been discovered in the sea-level domain.

Ecologic reef, stratigraphic reef,


seismic reef

Seismic unconformity .vs. outcrop


unconformity

"Was this reef really a reef?" This question continues to fuel heated discussions among geologists (see
James & Bourque, in press, for review). Dunham
(1970) introduced a novel perspective in this debate
when he proposed to qualify the term and distinguish
between ecologic reefs, built and bound by organisms,
and stratigraphic reefs where the binding is done by
cementation. This distinction has proved very useful
but the increasing use of seismics to identify reefs has
complicated matters again. The "seismic reefs"
defined by geometry and reflection character do not
correspond to either ecologic reefs or stratigraphic
reefs. Seismics tends to overlook certain reefs and, in
other circumstances, add non-reef deposits to the reef.
Living parts of reefs are small by seismic standards,
easily destroyed and quickly buried by their own
debris. The limited resolution of the seismic tool
reveals reefs only where many generations of reef
growth were stacked vertically to thicknesses of hundreds of meters. Where the locus of reef growth has
been forced to shift laterally, reefs form small lenses
embedded in detritus sediment. These lenses will be
seen by the field geologist but not by the seismic tool.
(Where porous, these reefs will also be "seen" by
migrating hydrocarbons, of course.)
Equally important are those situations where the
seismic tool shows more "reef" than is actually there
in a stratigraphic or ecologic sense. Reefs defined by
their geometry and the incoherent reflection character
normally include, besides ecologic reefs, also the reef
aprons on the landward side as well as the coarse forereef debris where it is unstratified (Figure 4-14). In
addition, sand shoals interfingering with reefs may be
included in the seismic unit.

Perhaps the most significant contribution of


sequence stratigraphy is the discovery that sedimentary basin fills are dissected by unconformities that can
be used to subdivide the sediment accumulations into
mappable, genetically coherent units. Unconformities,
of course, have long been recognized in outcrop. One
must emphasize, though, that seismic unconformities
and outcrop unconformities do not match. Three different situations may occur:
(1) Boundaries where in outcrop and seismic profile
the time lines abut against a surface. This type is
unproblematic because both the field geologist and
the seismic interpreter will recognize this feature as an
unconformity.
(2) There are outcrop unconformities that cannot be
seen by the seismic tool because their geometric
expression consists of a microrelief on the scale of centimeters or decimeters, while the large-scale bedding
of the two units remains parallel. This is common in
deep-sea sediments.
(3) Finally, the seismic image may show unconformities that correspond to transitional boundaries in
outcrop. Here, two radically different situations must
be distinguished.
(3a) Seismic unconformities where time lines converge into an interval of continuous, but very slow
sedimentation. The limited resolution of the seismic
tool may portray this thin interval as a lap-out surface.
The condensed interval meets the definition of unconformity by Vail et al. (1977) in so far as all deposits
below it are older than the oldest deposits above the
interval. The difference with this definition lies solely
in the fact that "non-deposition" needs to be replaced
by "slow deposition". For the seismic interpreter this
is a minor difference, but one that has to be kept in
mind when seismics is tied to boreholes or outcrops.
The deepening-upward succession on many drowned
platforms is an example of this "transitional seismic
unconformity" (Figure 5-10; Erlich et al., 1990, figure
11; Campbell, in press).
(3b) The most disturbing kind of seismic unconformity is the pseudo-unconformity, where a rapid facies
change occurs in each bed at a similar position and the
seismic tool merges these points of change into one
reflection. Time lines cross this reflection, thus it is not
an unconformity in the sense of Vail et al. (1977) and
needs to be recognized and eliminated before
sequence analysis is done (Figures 4-8 through 4-13).
Carbonate platforms are particularly prone to this
effect because rapid facies changes may occur on several places in the edifice and may go hand in hand
with significant changes in physical properties (e.g.
carbonate-shale transition at the toe of slope, or the
boundaries of reefs).

Valley cutting, fan building


The model of systems tracts assumes that sea level
controls the presence or absence of submarine fans as
well as their position higher or lower on the toe-ofslope. A view of modern oceans and hydrodynamic
theory indicate that fan development is largely a function of the transport capacity and competence of turbidity currents. These parameters, in turn, depend on
sediment supply and topography (slope angle, size of
valleys to channel the flows etc.). Sea level can influence sediment supply and, to a lesser extent, topography but in doing so it must compete with other processes.
For carbonate platforms, Schlager & Camber (1986)
have proposed a model of slope evolution as a function of the height of the platform (Figure 1-21). This
model predicts that the depocenter will shift basinward as the slope angle increases. Steep slopes can be
bypassed and even eroded by turbidity currents and
fans can onlap these slopes irrespective of sea-level
position. The position and shape of the gravity-dis-

30

Schlager

placed sediment bodies is largely a function of topography (Figures 4-15, 4-16). Carbonate sediments, in
particular reefs, are known for their ability to rapidly
build steep relief (e.g. Figures 1-14, 1-15). Depocenters
of gravity-displaced sediments will shift equally
rapidly in response to the changes in sea-floor relief.
Thus, fans and submarine canyons in carbonate terrains are probably rather unreliable indicators of sealevel movements.

Abrupt breaks versus gradual shifts in


sequences
The classical sequence model is characterized by
abrupt breaks at the sequence boundary, and, to a
lesser extent, at the transgressive surface and the
maximum flooding surface. The punctuation of the
record and the concomitant asymmetry is well displayed in the sawtooth pattern of the coastal onlap
curve (Vail et al. 1977) as well as the pattern of systems tracts (Figure 4-1). There can be no doubt that
these punctuations and asymmetric patterns exist
(e.g. Van Wagoner et al., 1990). However, there also
exist many well-documented examples of near-symmetrical cycles and gradual shifts of facies belts in the
105-106 year domain, e.g. Figures 4-10a, 4-17, or
Kauffman et al., 1977 on the Cretaceous of the Western Interior. The tendency towards gradual shifts and
symmetrical cycles is most pronounced in deeperwater settings, whereas near-shore environments

favor the development of erosional breaks that, in


turn, generate asymmetries by preferentially destroying one limb of a cycle (e.g. Kauffman, 1984 on the
Western Interior Basin). Recently, the case for gradual
shifts and symmetrical cycles has been strengthened
by detailed studies on stacking patterns within loworder cycles. It turns out that the stacking patterns in
low-order cycles often reveal gradual changes even
where the individual high-order cycles are punctuated and asymmetric (Figure 4-18; Read & Goldhammer, 1988; Goldhammer et al., 1990; Goldhammer et
al., 1991).
It seems that the sediment record in the millionyear domain is less punctuated and more symmetric
than the cycles in the ten-thousand year domain. In
view of what has been said above about the seismic
tool displaying rapid transitions as unconformities,
one may ask to what extent the punctuated nature and
pervasive asymmetry of the sequence-stratigraphic
models is an exaggeration inspired by the peculiarities
of the seismic tool.
Sequence stratigraphy, to be sure, can be practiced
with symmetric cycles too. Goldhammer et al. (1991)
have demonstrated this in exemplary fashion. However, in the absence of drastic events, correlation of
sequence boundaries and systems tracts becomes
much more arbitrary and sequence-stratigraphic analysis converges with the tried and true sedimentologic
practice of delineating shoaling, coarsening and thickening trends or their reverse, in a section (e.g. Goldhammer et al., 1991).

Sequence and Systems Tracts 31

INCISED \lALLEY

livfl

A)

IN DEPTH
CORRELATIVE CONFORMITY
(SEQUENCE BOUNDARY)

UNCONFORMITY

HSTI

CONDENSED SECTION

TSTI

~
SUBAERIAL HIATUS

UNCONFORMITY~

;: cy: ' ;~-zfii3B -

.,

SBI .r

DISTANCE

....,,.,.

,.,,.

'---

j;*
CORRELATIVE CONFORMITY
(SEQUENCE BOUNDARY)

BJ R GEOlOGIC TIME

LEGEND

t,:;::;,.j

if!l
C)
( i

ALLUVIAL
COASTAL PLAIN
ESTUARINE/FLUVIAL
SHOREFACE/DELTAIC SANDS

l ,JJN)

MARINE SILT, MUDSTONE


f=::.::=:=J MARINE SHALE
(:::{{!;:) DEEP-WATER SANDS

Figure 4-1. Stratigraphic sequences and their systems tracts as defined in sequence stratigraphy. (After Vail,

1987)

32

Schlager

TIME

--.....-:-t---t:'-r-~

EUSTACY

~ Lowstand SystarM ll'act (lST)

[;j lowstand Basin Floor Fan (bf)


!]] Lowstand Slope Fan (If)
~Lowstand Wedge-Prograding Compte (law)

TECTONIC SUBSIDENCE

~ Transgressive SyaterM ll'act (TST)

0 HlgMtand SyaterM ll'act (HST)


D
Systenw Tract (SMST)

RELATIVE CHANGE
OF SEA LEVEL

Shelf Margin

LST TST HST SMST

LEGEND
SYSTEMS TRACTS

SURFACES
(SB) SE~NCE BOUNDARIES
(SB 1) =TYPE 1
(SB 2) ~ TYPE 2

(Dl.S) DOWNLAP SURFACES


(mts) ~maximum flooding
(Ibis) ~ top 118M\ noor tan
(tats) = top slope tan ...race
(TS) TRANSGRESSIVE SURFACE
(First lloodlng
above

-lac:

-tac

-tac

m..lmum progr..s.tlon}

HST = HIGHSTAND SVSTEMS TRACT


TST ~ TRANSGRESSIVE SVSTEMS TRACT
lvf = lnciMd wiley fll
LST = LOWSTAN) SVSTEMS TRACT
11 = Incited wiley ..
llw = lowaUnd wedge-prograding complex
If
lowetand elope f8n
bl
lowetand baetn floor tan
fc =tancMnnela
" ~ f8n Iobei
SMST = SHELf MARGIN SVSTEMS TRACT

=
=

Figure 4-2. Relation of systems tracts to sea-level cycle as proposed by sequence stratigraphy. (After Vail, 1987)

a)o

bP

E
,.,_

E
,.,_
c
.c

c:

.c

a.
Cl)

c.

lJ

lJ

Cl)

distance in basin ( k m l -

90

Figure 4-3. Variations in sediment supply and sea level fluctuations have a similar effect on sequence patterns.
This example shows the synthetic strati~raphy of the Permian-Triassic Akhdar Group in Arabia. (After Aigner
et al., 1991, modified.) (a) Synthetic stratigraphy generated by sinusoidal variations in sediment supply. (b)
Synthetic stratigraphy generated by sinusoidal fluctuations of sea level.

Sequence and Systems Tracts 33


-

NW

Figure 4-4. Sequence boundary in deef Gulf of


Mexico related to change in sediment mput and
dispersal. The carbonate platform on the right was
drowned in the wake of a mid-Cretaceous anoxic
event and later covered with pelagics. As carbonate
input ceased, the debris apron of platform was
gradually buried by clashc sediments transported at
right angle to the profile. (Campeche Bank, Gulf of
Mexico, line courtesy of R.T. Buffler, Texas Institute
for Geophysics.)

GULF OF MEXICO
UTIG Line GT2-3b

4.0

8.0
sec

twt

.2

.1

.3

.4

CONTOURS
post-MCU siliciclntics
Canom-l.l'lleacane

pre-MCU Cllrbonlltes
Albian-early Cenom.

FLORIDA PLATFORM

60

0
KM

CAMPECHE
PLATFORM

CUBA
.3 .2

.1 0.0

1.0

Figure 4-5. Isopachs above and below the mid-Cretaceous unconformity-a major sequence boundary in the
Gulf of Mexico characterized by drowning of most platforms in the Gulf rim. Pre-MCU isopachs reflect the
input of carbonate debris from the platforms, post-MCU isopachs reflect the growth of a flysch wedge,
deposited in front of the advancing Cuban island arc. The unconformity represents a fundamental change in
the sediment-input pattern of the Gulf. (Modified after Phair in Schlager, 1989.)

34

Schlager

"ttlckness in two-way
traveltime (seconds)

SIGSBEE
Pleistocene

CNCO DE MAYO
late Mocene

tiYOI.Ul Plocene

lPPER

I'.EXICAN RDGES

midde Tertiary (?)


to late IViocene

LOWER
I'.EXICAN RIDGES
earty(?) to mldde

Tertiary(?)

after ShatJ) et al, 1984


Figure 4-6. Isopachs of Cenozoic seismic sequences in the Gulf of Mexico (After Shaub et al., 1984). Sequences
were defined and mapped following the principles of Vail et al. (1977). Note that each sequence shows a
different pattern of sediment input. The number of sequences and their ages do not correspond well with the
Cenozoic sea-level curve of Haq et al. (1987). We postulate that they are controlled by changes in sediment
input that reflect tectonic events in the hinterland of the Gulf.

Sequence and Systems Tracts 35


WEST

...

RIMBU
MUDOIVIROO

,, ,...,.
WEST

ALBERTA

"DEEP BASIN""

EAST

CH,ji#J

WEST SHALE BASIN

EA$1 SHALE BASIN

Fi~ure 4-7. Generalized sequence stratigraphic cross section of Upper Devonian deposits in central Alberta.
Dtrection and location of clinoforms as well as distribution of reefs, platforms and shale wedges indicate that
all sequence boundaries shown represent important changes in sediment input and dispersal patterns. This
does not exclude sea level as a possible control, but it strongly suggests that other factors besides sea level
strongly influenced the sequence pattern. (After Stoakes & Wendte, 1988. Reproduced with permission of
Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists.)

Figure 4-8. The difference between seismic


unconformity and outcrop unconformity in the
Sella mountains of the Southern Alps. (After
Stafleu & Schlager [1991] and J. Stafleu, written
communication.) The Late Triassic platform of the
Upper Schlem Fm. prograded by many hundreds of
meters while aggrading by tens of meters only.
Platform growth was ultimately terminated by
terrigenous deposition of the Raibl Fm. This
situation was surveyed in the field and
subsequently modelled seismically (see Figure 4-9).

36

Schlager

a
N

llll.

500.

IIIII.

IIIII.

lllll.

1500.

mi.

lllll.

15111.

2500.

m.

.Jill.

lilll.

MI.

4GIIl.

41111.

b
0

500.

IIIII
1500.
2IJI)

511.

1110.
Ill!.
2IJI)

Zlll.

2m

.1111.

Jill

Jill.

mi.

41111.

Figure 4-9(a). Outcrops shown in Figure 4-8 were used to construct a lithologic model indicating rapid
progradation and an alternative model based on the unlikely assumption of genuine toplap. (After Stafleu &
Schlager [1991] and J. Stafleu, written communication.)
Figure 4-9(b). Synthetic seismic profiles of the progradation model and the toplap model, using vertical
incidence and 20Hz wavelet (top right). Note that the thin undaform beds (=topsets) are not resolved and the
synthetic of either model portrays the clinoforms toplapping against the terrigenous unit. (After Stafleu &
Schlager [1991] and J. Stafleu, written communication.)

Sequence and Systems Tracts 37

Figure 4-9(c). Synthetic profile of the progradation


model (time section) at 20Hz (top) and 50 Hz
(bottom). At 50 Hz the transition from clinoforms
into undaform beds is visible as a separate event
below the base of the terrigenous umt. However,
the relationship between dinoform and undaform
bedding is shown as toplap, i.e., as a pseudounconformity. (After Stafleu & Schlager [1991) and
J. Stafleu, written communication.)

Schlager

38

RAIILGROUP

0
fl)
fl)

:E

a:

5 1-

1-

DISTANCE km

0.1

w
:&

~ 0.2--

>-

-c
~I

0 0.3

3:

1Cl)

0
0

o;:;

(I)

0.5

Figure 4-10. Pseudo-unconformities in seismic models of outcrops (after Rudolph et al., 1989; Schlager et al.,
1991; Biddle et al., 1992). (a) Platform-to-basin transition, Picco di Vallandro, Triassic, Southern Alps. (b)
Seismic model of platform-basin transition, showing several unconformable relationships. Only one of these
seismic unconformities (open arrows) was portrayed as an unconformity in the lithologic model; all other lapout patterns correspond to rapid lateral facies changes and represent pseudo-unconformities (black arrows).

Sequence and Systems Tracts 39

100M

.650

D
......

fl)

w .7001
~

i=

.750 '.
f.'.

100 M

Figure 4-11. Example of pseudo-downlap surface in the Triassic platform-basin transition. Change from
carbonate muds and breccias into (mostly terrigenous) basin sediments at base of a prograding platform slope
is shown as pseudo-downlap. (After Rudolph et al., 1989. Reproduced with permission of Geological Society
of America)

40

Schlager

o-

D
A

200m

IOULDERSI"--J DOLOMITE
'r-:i. LIMESTONE

INTERBEDDED LIMESTONE,

ARGILlACEOUS LIMESTONE,
AIIIO MARL
~

100M

Figure 4-12. Example of pseudo-onlap in the Triassic


platform-basin transition. Toe-of-slofe retreats but
keeps shedding debris in the form o meter-thick
tongues of megabreccias that extend into the basin.
The seismic model images this situation as onlap of
basin sediments on the clinoforms. (After Rudolph
et al., 1989. Reproduced with permission of
Geological Society of America)

Figure 4-13. Increased seismic resolution can solve


the problem of pseudo-unconformities. When
frequency is increased from 25 Hz to 100Hz, the
pseudo-onlap of the Triassic example is correctly
displayed as an interfingering pattern. (Mter
Staileu & Schlager et al., 1991)

Sequence and Systems Tracts 41


AG-4

sw

"'uw

NE

"'w
::1!

f:
z

f:

..J

IL

w
a:

~-5

Fi~ure 4-14.

Margin of the West Florida :platform in


seismic profile. The margin shows a "seismic reef"
(labeled as "margin facies") with elevated top and
incoherent reflections, but dredge hauls and
submersible dives revealed this "reef'' to consist of
platform-interior deposits (after Corso et al., 1988).
Seismic reefs are not necessarily ecologic reefs in
outcrop.

t3o~---SLOPE

120

,,

&,,,,

fl~;,

c: tOO

,,'

10~

j ::
10

, ...

,~---

,.,

!i

,,. ..

~,~':

.
>: 110
.

. . . 1. .
...............
______________
._I

-;.. BASIN

:
:
:

...__.LIB TRANSECT, 2-3

--I!XUMA TRANIECT, 10-11

g,~~~
~.~
. - .
...

~~~!!!------

-------~-~.

------

Km

Figure 4-16. Accumulation rates of various Neogene


time intervals of the Little Bahama Bank and Exuma
Sound slope transects. Note that on the gentle slope
(i.e., LBB), sedimentation rates are highest on the
slope and decrease basinward. On the steep Exuma
slope, rates in the basin are higher than on the
slope, which is interpreted as evidence for more
efficient basinward transport by turbidity currents
with increasin~ slope angle. This effect explains the
different positions of the highstand wedges in
Figure 4-12. (After Austin, Schlager et al., 1988.
Reproduced with permission of Ocean Drilling
Program)

ISQm

ns

300

Figure 4-15(a). Holocene highstand wedge on a


gentle, accretionary slope. Note maximum thickness
on upper slope. (Western margin of Great Bahama
Bank, from unpublished surveys by W. Schlager
and A.W. Droxler, interpretation as in Wilber et al.
1990.)
Figure 4-15(b). Holocene highstand wedge at the
foot of a steep, erosional slope. Pedro Bank on
Nicaragua Rise. (After Glaser et al., 1991). In
comparing (a) and (b), note that position of
sediment wedge is a function of slope angle rather
than sea-level position. Both wedges formed in the
last 8000 years. Reproduced with permission of
Elsevier Science Publishers.

42

Schlager

FACIES MOSAIC ACROSS DEPOSITIONAL STRIKE


LOWER ORDOVICIAN, CENTRAL APPALACHIANS
EAST

275 KM ------------~

(RESTORED)

v;0:: 500
w
w

1-

TIDAL

~ 400
(/)
(/)

~ 300

(/)

w
u

~
z

J:
II-

200

w
(/)
w

:f

I 00

CLEAR SPRING

MD

HAGERSTOWN

MD

FREDERICK

MD

Figure 4-17. Gradual facies shifts in Early Ordovician carbonates of the Appalachians. Note absence of abrupt
breaks that could represent sequence boundaries. The gradual shifts in the million-year domain contrast with
the largely asymmetric, punctuated cycles in the ten-thousand-year domain. (After Hardie &: Shinn, 1986.
Reproduced with permission of Colorado School of Mines Press)

Sequence and Systems Tracts 43

b
history of
sea level
sedimentation subsidence
synthetic stratigraphy

-...,
I ll
~

TST

...

-sb!

0
Ill

i1 Ii :J Condensed
Megacycle

E
II>

=: J Megacyle
Rhythmic

HST

-J

I'QfS- -

Amalgamated
Megacycle

TST

0~~

-25m

+25m

Sea Level Amplnude

Figure 4-18(a). Gradual and largely symmetrical changes in cycle-stacking patterns, Triassic Latemar platform,
Dolomites, Northern Italy. (After Goldhammer et al., 1990.) Cycles change from mainly subtidal deposits at
the bottom (LPF) to subtidal-supratidal cycles (LCF) to tepee-rich cycles with thin subtidal members (TF) and
back to subtidal-supratidal cycles (UCF). The pattern shows a rather symmetrical swing from subtidal to
exposure-dominated facies and back.
Figure 4-18(b). Model of the Latemar cycle stacking produced by computer program "Mr. Sediment" (after
Golhammer et al., 1990). Synthetic stratigraphy on the left and model of sea level, subsidence and
sedimentation on the right. Sequence-stratigraphic classification of synthetic stratigraphic column: TST, HST
=transgressive and higlistand systems tract, respectively; sb =sequence boundary; mfs =maximum flooding
surface. Note that with gradual change such as these, the sequence boundary and the maximum flooding
surface are no longer unique horizons, their position becomes to some extent arbitrary.

CHAPTERS

CARBONATES VERSUS SILICICLASTICS


IN SEQUENCE STRATIGRAPHY
The principle of depositional bias

leeward margin in Figure 5-1). However, even in these


loose-sediment dominated prograding margins, one
finds reefs or sand rims. We believe that the shelf-margin elevation of these prograding platforms yields the
most reliable sea-level record in carbonate seismic
stratigraphy (e.g. Eberli & Ginsburg, 1988; Sarg, 1988).

In chapter 4 we concluded that sea level fluctuations are but one of several ways to generate
sequences and systems tracts. This claim is based on a
sedimentologic evaluation of sequence anatomy.
Where sea level does exert the dominant control on
sequence stratigraphy, sedimentology must be called
upon again, this time to assess the differences of the
sea-level records of depositional systems. Siliciclastics
and carbonates are the two most prominent examples
that come to mind, but evaporites, too, have their specific ways of recording sea level. Depositional systems
resemble newspapers that all report on the events of
the day, but each with different editorial bias. It
behooves the reader to learn about the editorial bias of
his paper. Similarly, the geologist ought to know
about the bias of depositional systems in recording
changes of sea level (and other environmental factors). Below, we discuss some peculiarities of carbonates vis a vis siliciclastics.

Highstand shedding
It is a well-established fact that in the Pleistocene,
siliciclastic sediment supply to the deep sea was at its
maximum during glacial lowstands of sea level.
Rimmed carbonate platforms were in antiphase to this
rhythm. They produced and exported most sediment
during interglacial highstands when the platform tops
were flooded. This "highstand shedding" is best documented for the Bahama Banks (Figure 5-2; Droxler et
al., 1983; Mullins, 1983; Reijmer et al., 1988). The pattern also appears in platforms of the Caribbean, the
Indian Ocean (Droxler et al., 1990) and the Great Barrier Reef (Davies et al., 1989). See Schlager et al. (in
press), for review.
Highstand shedding is a general principle of carbonate sedimentation because of the combined effect
of sediment production and diagenesis. Sediment production of a platform increases with its size, and the
production area of a platform with its top exposed is
normally smaller than the production area of a flooded platform. In the Bahamas, the flooded top is one
order of magnitude larger than the belt of shallowwater production during lowstands (Droxler et al.,
1983; Schlager et al., in press). The effect of increased
highstand production is enhanced by the rapid lithification of carbonates during lowstands. Siliciclastics
owe part of the high sediment input during lowstands
to erosion of the preceding highstand deposits. Carbonate diagenesis largely eliminates this effect. In the
marine environment, there is a strong tendency for the
sea bed to lithify and develop hardgrounds wherever
waves and currents interrupt continuous sedimentation (Schlager et al., in press). Thus, widespread hardgrounds will protect the highstand deposits when sea
level starts to fall and wave base is lowered. When
sediments finally become exposed, they tend to devel-

Defended platform margins


We have mentioned above that carbonate platforms
have a strong tendency to form elevated margins that
build to sea level right at the shelf break, protecting a
slightly deeper lagoon that gently rises to the littoral
zone farther landward. When these rims are overwhelmed by sea level, they cause facies belts to jump
and interrupt the gradual shift in onlap. This jump
must not be confused with a sea-level fall and
sequence boundary. Furthermore, elevated rims have
a strong tendency to stack vertically, putting reef on
reef, sand shoal on sand shoal, because the environmental conditions favor the establishment of a new
reef on top of an old reef, an oolite shoal on top of an
older shoal. In this way, the lateral migration of systems tracts in response to sea level is interrupted (e.g.
windward margin in Figure 5-1). Prograding margins
dominated by offshore sediment transport more closely resemble the classical sequence model. They are
controlled by loose sediment accumulation and
approach the geometry of siliciclastic systems (e.g.

44

Carbonates Versus Siliciclastics 45

op an armor of lithified material within hundreds to a


few thousands of years as borne out by the numerous
rocky Holocene islands on extant platforms (e.g. Halley & Harris, 1979). Subsequent erosion acts largely
through chemical dissolution, enlarging porosity and
creating cave networks but keeping surface denudation lower than in siliciclastics.
Highstand shedding creates highstand wedges of
sediment, displayed in exemplary fashion by the
Holocene sediment of extant carbonate platforms
(Figure 4-15). Furthermore, turbidites are more frequent in highstand intervals, forming highstand bundles, (Figure 5-6).
Platforms are not completely shut down during
lowstands. Sediments continue to be produced from a
narrow belt of sands and fringing reefs, and from
eroding sea cliffs that cut into the exposed platform.
There is no evidence, however, that the lowstand
input reaches anywhere near the volume of highstand
sediments and the postulated apron-building around
Pacific atolls during lowstands of sea level has not
withstood close scrutiny (see Thiede et al. [1981] vs.
Dolan [1989]). Furthermore, lowstand input is compositionally different and can be recognized by petrographic analysis (e.g. Everts, 1991).
.
The limitations of highstand shedding can be
deduced from the above discussion of its causes. The
difference between highstand and lowstand prod uction depends on the hypsography of the platform.
Flat-topped, rimmed platforms with steep slopes
show more pronounced highstand shedding than
ramps. If there is no flat top at all and sea-level simply
moves up and down an inclined plane, the difference
between highstand and lowstand production will be
zero. Figure 5-4 shows that besides platform morphology, the duration of sea-level cycles is important.
When sea-level cycles are long (e.g. millions of years)
and flanks gentle, the platform can build a lowstand
wedge that partly substitutes for the production area
lost on the platform top (see next section for further
discussion). Finally, lithification and the resistance
against lowstand erosion vary with latitude and
possibly with age. Figure 5-3 illustrates the decrease
of marine cementation with latitude. Cool-water carbonates are less prone to submarine lithification than
their tropical counterparts. Lithification upon exposure, too, is reduced because of the low content of
metastable aragonite and magnesian calcite. It is possible that Paleozoic carbonates with their generally
lower content of metastable minerals are also more
prone to lowstand flushing. Lowstand shedding of
Tertiary cool-water carbonates has been described by
Driscoll et al. (1991).

Sea-level records specific to carbonates


With their flat tops built to sea level and their biota
very sensitive to water depth, carbonate platforms are
one of the most reliable dip sticks in the ocean. This
quality is enhanced by the resistance to erosion of

exposed platforms. Reefs are "born" as rock-hard


structures, other platform deposits usually lithify
within a few thousand years when exposed. Subsequent erosion is largely chemical and directed into the
rock rather than at its surface (see above). Surface
denudation is generally less than in siliciclastics and a
reasonable sea-level record can be gleaned from platforms by determining overall subsidence and measuring the thickness of marine intervals plus position and
timing of exposure horizons (see Figure 5-5 and Ludwig et al., 1988; McNeill et al., 1988).
The combination of defended margins and
enhanced resistance to erosion creates some special
opportunities for sequence stratigraphy. Rapidly prograding platform margins tend to preserve the original elevations of the shelf surfaces particularly well,
including the very important lowstand systems tracts.
Eberli & Ginsburg (1988) and Sarg (1988) have contributed excellent examples of sea-level curves
gleaned from carbonates using the technique of the
fluctuating shelf surface (Figure 5-6).
Recently, sea-level studies of platform tops have
been complemented by compositional analysis of
platform-derived turbidites on the platform flanks.
The depositional environment of these calciturbidites
is below the range of sea-level fluctuations so that sedimentation is not interrupted during lowstands. Highstand turbidites differ not only in abundance but also
in composition from their lowstand counterparts as
they contain more ooids, pellets, and
grapestones-grains that require flooded bank tops
for their formation. This has been well documented
for Pleistocene turbidites in the Bahamas (Figure 5-7).
Reijmer et al. (in press) report on a Triassic example
(Figure 5-8), Everts (1991) on a Tertiary one.
Carbonate petrography reveals not only changes in
the spectrum of contemporary grains. Lithoclasts
derived from erosion of older, lithified parts of the
platform are easily recognized. We must emphasize,
however, that erosion may cut into older material on
the flanks at any time during platform history, regardless of sea-level position (see Figure 1-21). During the
present highstand, old limestone is exposed and eroded in many places on the Bahamian slopes and rim
collapse caused high admixture of lithoclasts in a
debris flow from the Sangamonian highstand (Crevello & Schlager, 1980).
Limitations on the compositional tool are the same
as for highstand shedding. A platform that builds a
lowstand wedge during an extended sea-level cycle
may well be able to produce highstand material on
this auxiliary platform top.

Drowning and drowning unconformities


Siliciclastic systems can build to sea level from any
depth, the rate of aggradation being simply a function
of sediment input. For reefs and carbonate platforms,
on -the other hand, there exists a maximum depth from
which they can rebound. This maximum depth of

46

Schlager

rebound is the limit of the photic zone because carbonate production in the aphotic depths of the ocean is
negligibly small. Thus, platform growth can be terminated by a relative rise whose rate exceeds the growth
potential of the platform in question. A sequence
boundary will be formed by the drastic change in sediment composition and in sediment dispersal patterns
that accompany platform termination. Geometrically,
this sequence boundary resembles a lowstand unconformity. In reality, however, it must form during a rise
or highstand of sea level because drowning can occur
only when the platform top is flooded (Schlager, 1989).
Drowned platforms and drowning unconformities are
common in the geologic record (Figures 5-9, 5-10, 5-12).
At least some of them have been interpreted as the
result of major lowstands and this may explain some
discrepancies between the sea-level curve from
sequence stratigraphy and curves derived by other
techniques (Figure 6-5). Raised rim and empty bucket
are common with drowning unconformities and provide a good criterion for their recognition. One problem with the seismic interpretation of carbonate-siliciclastic boundaries is the question of relief on the basinward side. Interfingering and onlap relationships, i.e.
pseudo-unconformities and genuine unconformities,
are sometimes extremely difficult to distinguish (Figures 5-9 through 5-12).
The sediment record of platform drowning is highly variable. Campbell (1992) pointed out that drowning unconformities, too, illustrate the mismatch
between outcrop unconformities and seismic unconformities. Only a fraction of the drowning unconformities includes a significant hiatus and thus meets the
definition of unconformity in the classical sense.

Many drowning events are represented by a gradational succession of facies that record the increasing
water depth on the platform top. A characteristic element of this drowning succession is high-energy
grainstones, often rich in echinoderm debris, that
appear sandwiched between muddy lagoonal
deposits below and deep-water muds above. Drowning succession may include numerous small hiatuses
but the overall pattern is one of gradational, albeit
rapid, change from platform interior to pelagic or
hemipelagic deposition. Erlich et al. (1990) illustrate
how recognition of the drowning succession critically
depends on seismic resolution (Figure 5-10).

Structural control on reefs and platforms


There are numerous examples for structural control
of the position of reefs and platform margins. Rather
than adding to these examples, we would like to
emphasize the opposite quality, the "healing power"
of reefs and platforms. Through their vast in-situ production of sediment, platforms are able to quickly fill
in structural relief and prograde away from inactive
structures, responding to environmental factors such
as wind and currents. In this way, structural control
soon is lost unless continually renewed by synsedimentary movements (Figure 5-13).
After deposition, reefs and platforms often attract
deformation along their flanks and over their margins
because of preferential compaction of the surrounding
sediments. (Figures S-9, 5-10,5-12). This phenomenon,
caused by the extensive early lithification of platform
rims, is a specific attribute of rimmed platforms.

Carbonates Versus Siliciclastics 47

Fi9ure 5-1. Windward (left) and leeward (right) bank margins in the Bahamas. Note strong evidence for
se1smic reefs where margin is stationary and reefs are allowed to stack vertically for extended periods.
Apparent lack of reefs on the rapidly migrating leeward margin is probably caused by rapid shift of reef
growth and frequent interruption by sediment dumping (compare with the leeward margin of Figure 2-5).
Relative elevation of the shelf edge in the prograding margin is probably the best seismo-stratigraphic sealevel indicator in carbonate platforms. The profile also illustrates the effect of sediment supply on sequence
geometry. Supply is hi~h on the leeward margin (right) and therefore the margin progrades. The windward
margin (left) receives httle sediment and builds up vertically. (Line courtesy of Texaco Inc.; interpretation
after Eberli & Ginsburg, 1988)

48

Schlager

a
Peri-platform mud
Bahamas

Carbonate

30

en

Terrigenous mud

w 30

N Atlantic

MARINE PRECIPITATES

(..)

N-56

20

Figure 5-2(a). Sedimentation rates during


highstands and lowstands of sea level in various
depositional systems. In terrigenous muds from the
continental rise, rates are low and uniform during
inter~lacial highstands and high and variable
(turbtdite-controlled) during glaciallowstands
("lowstand sheddin"). In peri-platform muds, the
pattern is reversed ( 'highstand shedding"). In
pelagic carbonate ooze, rates remain low and
uniform in both highstands and lowstands. (After
Droxler & Schlager, 1985, modified. Reproduced
with permission of Elsevier Science Publishers)

z
w
a:
a:

20

10

::>
(..)
(..)

Glacial

at

...

0......_~~40::........._,__....;8::.:0::..........._.~0

-40

-20

20

40

60

PALEOLATITUDE

Figure 5-3. Inorganic carbonate precipitation as


estimated by the formation of ooids and submarine
cements is most intensive in the low latitudes;
submarine cementation of cool-water carbonates is
only a fraction of the cementation in tropical
carbonates. This pattern has persisted thoughout
the Phanerozoic. Rapid cementation reduces
reworking and sediment export from the platforms
during lowstands of sea level and is partly
responsible for the pronounced highstand shedding
of tropical carbonate platforms. (After Opdyke &
Wilkinson, 1990) Reproduced by permission of
Elsevier Science Publishers

50
Sedimentalion rates In mm/ky -

mmlka 40

-60

...... 40

Figure 5-2(b). Highstand and lowstand


sedimentation rates during the late Quaternary in
the Bahamas (Atlantic) and Maldives (Indian
Ocean). In both instances, rates during glacial
lowstands (shaded) are generally lower than during
the interglacial highstands of sea level. Other
effects may modulate this pattern (e.~. upwarddecreasing rates in the Bahamian basm site), but
they do not erase it. Bahama store =ODP Site 633,
Bahama basin =ODP 632, Maldtves slope =ODP
714. Solid bars indicate means with 90% confidence
intervals. (After Reijmer et al. [1988], Droxler et al.
[1990), modified.)

Carbonates Versus Siliciclastics 49


a) STEEP SLOPE, SHORT CYCLES (modern Bahamaa)

a)

TIME (M.Y. belore present)

~~~;-.--,......!;'15~~"T"""""""'.---!l!IO--..--.--.,......,--:r5-.--.--,.......,.-;0I.O

100m

Enewetak

1.5

plat'f'orm

40

30-90.
upper elope

811o
-40

-80
2.5
b) GENTLE SLOPE. LONG CYCLES (Neogene Bahamas)

-120
oxyaen-1sotope

b)
20

15

sea

level

TIME (M.Y. before present)


10
5

0
sequence

low-atand wedge

-...

'.........

200M

100

Figure 5-4. Highstand sheddin~ is expected to be


most pronounced with steep-stded platforms and
short cycles (a). Gentle flanks and long cycles
probably lead to growth of a broad lowstand wedge
that produces bank-top sediment and may dampen
the effect of highstand shedding.
Figure 5-5. Sea-level record of carbonate r.latform in
the Pacific compared with two other sea- eve)
indicators: the eustatic curve of Haq et al. (1987)
based on sequence stratigraphy and the oxygen
isotope ratio, in this time interval largely a eustatic
sea-level signal reflecting changes in ice volume.
The platform record consists of the subsidence path
of exposed bank top (dotted) and short intervals of
marine sedimentabon during highstands (arrows).
The overall similarity of all three curves points to a
strong eustatic signal in all of them, but
correspondence between platform stratigraphy and
isotopes is significantly better than with the
sequence-stratigraphy curve. (After COSOD Report,
1987, modified)

50

Schlager

sea-level

sea-level Fall

----

b)

Figure 5-6. Sea-level changes recorded in the


fluctuating shelf surface of a prograding Bahama
platfonn in the Tertiary. The fact that many platfonns
develop hard, erosion-resistant rims makes this
classical sequence-stratigraphic technique especially
useful in carbonates. (After Eberli & Ginsburg, 1989,
Cenozoic progradation of northwestern Great
Bahama Bank, a record of lateral platfonn growth
and sea-level fluctuations. In Crevello, P.D., Wilson,
J.L., Sarg, J.F., & Read, J.R (eds.), Controls on
carbonate platforms and basin development, SEPM
Special Publication, v. 44, p. 33-351).

Carbonates Versus Siliciclastics 51

12

14

13

!
:r

...0ti:

...
Q:

TURBIDITE~

GRADED
PERIPLATFORM OOZE

UNGRADED TURBIDITE

Figure 5-7. Highstand bundling and compositional signals in calciturbidites. Quaternary cores from Tongue of
the Ocean, a basin surrounded by the Great Bahama Bank. Turbidites are most abundant during interglacial
highstands of the sea, when bank tops are flooded and produce sediment; turbidites are thin and scarce
during slaciallowstands. Turbidites also vary in composition: Hi~hstand layers are rich in pellets and
ooids-t.e., grains that form on the shallow tianks by the interaction of tidal currents and winnowing from
waves. Lowstand turbidites consist mainly of skeletal material, includin~ reef detritus, because fringing reefs
and skeletal sand can migrate down-slope with fallin~ sea level. Glacial-mterglacial strati~aphy is provided
by variation in aragonite/calcite ratio, a property that ts closely correlated witli the oxygen tsotope curve.
(After Haak & Schlager, 1989. Reproduced with permission of Geologische Vereinigung.)

Schlager

52

a
Biota, non-specified
Platform-interior
Shallow reef
Deep reef or forereef
Open ocean biota
Embedding sediment

1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
8.

0.4

.. . .
. ' e.... . . ..
. ...' .. .
.. -... . .. ...
.. . ...
....... .
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.... .!3
. ..
. . . ..
. .
0

t- , '.,

.~

. .

..... : .

:.: :

.: :

, ,

"

'It

II

"-

~1

.,

o.o

. .
0

..

.
.

..
..

>
0

""'0

:rJ

0-2

Oo

,~

.. .... .I

00

..

....

1\)

-0.2

. .

-0.4

~----~----~----~----~--~~-----T----~----~-----;----~----~-0-6
}.3
-0 .}
o.s
1I
0.9
0.7
0.3
o.J
-0.7
-0.9
-o.s
-0-3

FACTOR 1

b
2. BASIN
LACKE, GOSAU

1. PLATFORM

TOTES GEBIRGE
Wavelength

Ratioa

Wavelength

in m

in m
93.87
18.17
17.07

--------

14.44
13.74
8.94
8.66
5.03
4.54
4.27
3.91

---------------------------------

24.0
23.68
13.0
11.84
6.5
4.7 ---------8.61
4.4
7.28
4.0
3.7
3.5
4.98
2.7
4.11
2.3
2.2
2.42
1.3
2.12
1.2
1.1
1.82
1

---------------------------------

Figure 5-8. Compositional signals in


calciturbidite-a Triassic example from the northern
Alps (after Reijmer et al., 1991; Reijmer, 1991). Point
counts and subsequent cluster and factor analysis
on 277 turbidites revealed that turbidite
composition varies between two extremes: (1) high
content of platform material (grains from the
platform interior and shallow reefs) and (2) high
content of open-ocean biota such as radiolarians
and halobiid bivalves. The variations of turbidite
composition display a hierarchy of cycles and the
inferred periods of the cycles correspond very well
with the exposure cycles of the adjacent platform
(the Lofer cycles of Fischer, 1964). Reijmer et al.
conclude that the variation of turbidite composition
is driven by the flooding and exposure of the
platform tops. The inferred duration of the most
prominent cycles is consistent with orbital control.
(a) Factor analysis of the compositional data of 277
turbidites. Factor 1, explaining 56% of total
variance, represents an oscillation between
platform input (during highstands and platform
flooding) and open-ocean input (during lowstands
and platform exposure). (After Reijmer et al., in
press.) (b) Ratios of the wavelengths of major cycles
on the platform and in the basin as determined by
Walsh spectral analysis. Wavelengths are expressed
as multiples of the shortest cycle, that is, 3.91 m on
the platform and 1.82 min the basin. Sedimentation
rates ~leaned from biostratigraphy indicate a
duration of 15,000....18,000 years for this basic cycle,
compatible with its interpretation as the short cycle
of the Earth's orbital precession. The similarity of
the two spectra supports the notion that turbidite
composibon varies m step with the flooding and
exposure of the platform source area. (Reijmer et al.,
written communication.)

Carbonates Versus Siliciclastics 53

WILMINGTON PLATFORM

silici-

clastics
Cret.-Tert.

plat for

Late Jur .
... B. Cret.

elevated platro~m margin


with drowning unconformity
on seaward side

Figure 5-9(a). Drowning unconformity on Wilmington Platform accordin9 to Meyer (1989) and Schlager (1989).
The seaward flank is over 2500 m high and is onlapped by more gently dtpping, almost transparent
siliciclastics. Clastics prograde over platform after drowning has shifted the point of sediment onlap by tens
of kilometers shoreward. Erlich et al. (1990) propose a much-reduced relief and interfingering of carbonates
and siliciclastics. The debate illustrates a typical problem with drowning unconformities. (Profile courtesy of
Shell Oil Co.)
Figure 5-9(b). Deep lagoons and raised rims (empty buckets) often precede final drowning of a platform and
can be used to distinguish drowning unconformities from lowstand unconformities. In the final stages of
growth, the rim of the Wilmington platform rose 200 m above lagoon floor.

54

Schlager

a)

Cii

1000 METERS

1.4

0
0

(/)

w
~

i=

1.6

b)

Platform 3 (Lategrowth buildup)

I
Platform 2

A; : : : : : : :.:- ~. -!r;:. .- L-r- J-;--.--JIL-.--=0~,

Figure 5-lO(a). Seismic profile of a "late growth reef" rising above the drowned platfonn top. Miocene, Pearl
River Mouth Basin, South China Sea. In this instance the amount of relief at the time of drowning was
confinned by drilling.
Figure 5-lO(b). Successive stages of drowning and backstepping in Miocene platfonn, Pearl River Mouth
Basin. (After Erlich et al., 1990). Successive backstepping of platfonns prior to complete drowning is a very
common pattern of carbonate platfonns and commonly produces excellent stratigraphic traps.

Carbonates Versus Siliciclastics 55

S.E.

N.W.

"JOB CREEK"
WF19
0

G.A.3 WF 16

G.A.-6
1mi

G.A.-4

G.M.-1 WF 14

D.J.-1

G.M.-2
ALEXO

500m

1:1

l:J

Job Creek reef-edge (Shell fieldwork 1979), incorporating unpublished Shell measured sections.

Figure 5-11. Margin of Devonian Leduc platform, showing back-stepping mar~in onlapped by shale below
and carbonate-shale interfingerin~ at the top (Alberta, Canada). Thts example ts based on outcrop
observations. In seismic profiles, mterfingering and onlap relationships may be virtually indistinguishable.
(After Andrews, 1988; published with permission of Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists)

011 Morocco

10 km

line cour1esy Euon Co.

Figure 5-12. Unconformity on a Cretaceous-Jurassic


platform off Morocco (dotted). This se9-uence
boundary was attributed to a Valangiman lowstand
by Vail et al. (1977). Schlager (1989) proposed an
alternative interpretation as a drowning
unconformity. Note the similarity with the coeval
Wilmington platform in the nearly conjugate
American margin. Note furthermore the raised rim
and differential compaction, causing folds in the
overlying siliciclastics. Arrows mark the position of
boreholes.

56

Schlager

--

Ortist-i 0

-----

Cortina d'Ampezzo

Platform margins
~

Latest Anisian

~ Early

Ladinian

10km

Figure 5-13. Synsedimentary fault control on platforms is quickly modified and obliterated by progradation
and basin-filling when fault movements cease. Triassic, Southern Alps, Italy. (After Bosellini, 1984, modified)

CHAPTER6

ALTERNATIVES TO EUSTASY IN
SEQUENCE CONTROL
ment are particularly important for reefs and carbonate platforms and will be discussed here.
Marine carbonate sediment is extracted directly
from the dissolved load of sea water. Thus, carbonate
production is intimately tied to the chemistry and
other environmental conditions of the ocean. This is in
stark contrast to siliciclastics, for which the ocean is
merely a transport medium of material ultimately
derived from land.
The rate of carbonate production is an important
control on sequences and systems tracts. Changes in
ocean environment can directly modulate the growth
and thus the sequence geometry of reefs and carbonate platforms. Environmental change may, but need
not, operate in tandem with sea level. Platform
drowning is a case in point.
Drowning requires that the reef or platform be submerged to subphotic depth by a relative rise that
exceeds the growth potential of the carbonate system.
The race between sea level and platform growth goes
over a short distance, the thickness of the photic zone.
Holocene systems indicate that their short-term
growth potential is an order of magnitude higher than
the rates of long-term subsidence or of third-order sea
level cycles (compare Figure 1-15 and Schlager, 1981).
This implies that drowning events must be caused by
unusually rapid pulses of sea level or by environmental change that reduced the growth potential of platforms. With growth reduced, drowning may occur at
normal rates of rise. Examples from the Holocene and
the Cretaceous will be called upon to illustrate the role
of environmental change.
In the Holocene, many reefs drowned at a time
when the rate of sea-level rise had already passed its
maximum and was slowing down. The drownings
occurred when the sea started to invade the flat bank
tops, generating shallow lagoons with highly variable
temperatures and salinities as well as high suspended
loads due to soil erosion. The ebb flow carried these
"inimical bank waters" seaward and killed the reefs
(Figure 6-1). Neumann & Macintyre (1985) coined the
phrase "reefs shot in the back by their own lagoons" for
this example of drowning by environmental change.
A modern example of a reef crisis induced by environmental change is the coral mortality in the wake of
the El-Nifio event of the 1980s (Glynn, 1991). In this

Classical sequence stratigraphy holds that succession and geometry of sequences are controlled by relative changes of sea level (e.g. Vail et al., 1977; Haq et
al., 1987). The theory postulates furthermore that a
global stack of relative sea-level curves from sequence
stratigraphy reveals a strong eustatic signal that dominates the record even in tectonically mobile settings
such as convergent ocean margins. Consequent application of the above concepts has produced the most
widely cited eustatic sea level curve to date (Haq et
al., 1987). This curve has proved very useful in many
instances, particularly in periods with independent
evidence for strong glacio-eustasy. However, the
curve has also generated a growing wave of concern
and reports of serious discrepancies. We refer to Miall
(1986), Hubbard (1988) and Underhill (1991) for critique of the general concept. This chapter restricts
itself to questions specifically related to sequence
stratigraphy in reefs and carbonate platforms.
We contend that, particularly in carbonates, eustasy
is less dominant than postulated by classical sequence
stratigraphy and that other processes contribute significantly to the formation of stratigraphic sequences. The
alternatives are of two kinds: First, many sea-level fluctuations reflected in sequence stratigraphy are related
to local or regional tectonics. Second, there are controls
beyond the realm of sea level that can, at times, dominate sequence anatomy. This line of reasoning builds on
the arguments presented earlier that the sedimentologic interpretation of sequences and systems tracts leaves
room for other controls besides sea level.
In the first category, regional changes instead of
eustatic ones, we mention intraplate deformation as a
particularly attractive alternative to eustasy (Cloetingh, 1988). The past decade produced mounting evidence that the model of rigid, internally undeformed
plates is inadequate. It has been shown how plates
buckle and warp in response to changes of the
intraplate stress field. The resulting sea-level changes
are not global but super-regional, i.e., they can imprint
synchronous events on entire ocean basins including
their margins. For carbonates, this would provide an
explanation for the similarity of sea-level curves from
mid-ocean settings and ocean margins without necessarily implying eustasy.
In the second category, changes in ocean environ-

57

58

Schlager

instance, the damage can be traced to unusually high


water temperatures that exceeded the tolerance of
many corals. The El-Nino crisis in the eastern Pacific
may not have a lasting effect on reefs. However, one
can easily imagine that more frequent occurrences of
severe El-Nifio events may damage some reefs to
extent where they loose the race with subsidence and
drown.
A Holocene example of coral reef growth limited
by ocean circulation has been described by Roberts &
Phipps (1988). They noticed that coral reefs in the eastern Java Sea are relatively scarce and restricted to
water depths of 15 m or less; below this depth, coral
reefs are replaced by bioherms of green algae that are
devoid of hard framework. These bioherms produce
much sediment but would be unable to build truly
wave-resistant structures. The limitation of coral
growth is attributed to upwelling of nutrient-rich
waters that increase bioerosion and stimulate the
growth of competitors to scleractinian corals.
The damaging effect of excess nutrients on coral
reefs has been documented in numerous involuntary
experiments with sewage outfalls and fertilizer
runoff.
In the Cretaceous, spectacular growth of platforms
alternates with extensive drowning events (Arthur &
Schlanger (1979); Schlager, 1981). These drownings
coincide in space and time with oceanic anoxic events
(Figure 6-2). A similar coincidence was observed in
the Devonian and the Liassic. In the Cretaceous, the
switch from carbonate to siliciclastic deposition produced some spectacular unconformities and sequence
boundaries (e.g., Figures 4-4, 5-12). There is, however,
no indication that sea-level rises at the time of drowning were unusually rapid. There seems to be no correlation between the rates of (relative) rise and the fate
of the platform. Rates of drowned platforms show the
same broad scatter as platforms overall and platforms
growing at 20 m/Ma were drowned just as well as
others growing at 200 m/Ma (Figure 6-3). Furthermore, third-order cycles, the prime cause of sequence
boundaries according to classical sequence theory,
show rates of rise one order of magnitude below the
growth potential of healthy platforms (compare Figures 6-4b and 1-9). We conclude that the majority of
Cretaceous drownings were not caused by abnormally high rates of relative sea-level rise but rather by
abnormal reduction of growth through environmental
change. The coincidence of drowning with anoxia
may point to a common cause of the two phenomena
or to a cause-and-effect relationship. Hallock &
Schlager (1986) have argued for the latter. In analogy
to the modem reef killings by sewage outfalls and fertilizer runoff, they speculated that the carbonate benthos was overwhelmed by faster-growing heterotrophic biota when excess nutrients from the anoxic depths of the ocean were swept to the surface in
open-ocean overturn. Vogt (1989) proposed poisoning
by hydrothermal plumes. The two concepts can be

combined: Volcanism may have provided the energy


source for open-ocean upwelling. This upwelling, in
tum, could cause fertility pulses with blooms of noncarbonate organisms that damaged the reefs and platforms.
The notion of oceanic events terminating platform
growth and creating sequence boundaries may
explain some peculiarities of the curve by Haq et al.
(1987). Figure 6-5 shows the Early-Cretaceous curve to
be out of step with other sea-level records. The discrepancies can be reconciled if one assumes that the
postulated lowstands really are drowning unconformities. A similar situation is seen on Figure 5-5, where
the curve of Haq et al. (1987) postulates two abrupt
sea-level falls, at 16.5 and 15.5 Ma respectively. Neither the oxygen isotopes nor the platform stratigraphy
of Enewetak confirm these events.
Ocean currents are yet another process by which
environmental change exerts sequence control. Figure
6-6 summarizes a rather instructive case study from
the Blake Plateau. Pinet & Popenoe (1985) mapped a
number of well-defined sequences and related them
to variations in the course and current intensity of the
Gulf Stream. These variations, in tum, were tentatively correlated to sea-level cycles of the curve by Vail et
al. (1977). O.D.P. drilling confirmed the strong influence of bottom currents on these sediments but found
a very poor correlation with the eustatic curve from
sequence stratigraphy (Austin, Schlager et al., 1988). It
seems that, at least in this particular case, the meandering Gulf Stream shapes sequences without demonstrable connection to sea-level cycles. Yet another
example of a current- controlled sequence boundary is
shown in Figure 6-7 from the Gulf of Mexico (Mullins
et al., 1987).
Finally, changes in sediment input merit mention as
important controls of sequence boundaries. These
changes are typically linked to tectonic rearrangements of the hinterland and thus pertain to siliciclastics more than to carbonates. Examples include the
Cenozoic sequences in the central Gulf of Mexico (Figure 4-6) and the Mesozoic sequences described by
Embry (1989) from the Sverdrup Basin. Carbonates
may be influenced indirectly by such changes in terrigenous input as certain areas become favorable, others inimical for platform growth. The Devonian of
Western Canada reflects this interplay of shifting siliciclastic supply and the carbonate response to it (see
Figure 4-7 and Stoakes & Wendte, 1988).
We feel that alternatives to eustasy deserve more
attention in sequence stratigraphy. The sedimentological underpinnings of the concept clearly indicate that
first, relative and absolute (i.e. eustatic) changes of sea
level have the same effect on sequences and, second,
sequences can be generated by processes other than
sea level. The fascination with, and exclusive emphasis on, eustasy may have reduced rather than
improved the role of sequence stratigraphy as a predictive tool.

Alternatives To Eustasy In Sequence Control 59

a)
.... ,.., ~

lank

1101

--~.,

llloll

.:::.. ~:!.e.... -

.....

--~

Outer l'oetureDro!IOff - -

Hen

Channel

b)
.,c.:

.
..

prase11t

!JOOOBP~

II

6000 BP

"

7000 BP

"

8000

10

LU

1-

BP~

~
ro

II

z
~"''

G..
IIJ

...,,.

o... ,

l:
1-

'

,.

,,

.,Jll

BRANCHING CORALS

MASSIVE CORALS

<?

ACROPORA PRIMATA
SAND
RADIOCARBON DATE

...

'"
HORIZONTAL

...
DISTANCE

..

.,.
IN

...

METERS

Figure 6-1. Caribbean reefs drowned during the Holocene trans~ession. Rate of sea-level rise cannot be the
cause of drowning, because the reefs drowned when sea-level nse was decreasing. The demise is related to
reduction of growth potential by environmental stress: the crisis coincides with tlte flooding of the bank tops
and ~eneration of lagoon waters with hidt suspended loads and extremely variable temperatures and
salinities. (After Adey et al., 1977. Repro'ltuced with permission of Rosenstiel School of Marine &
Atmospheric Science) (a) Map of St. Croix, Virgin Islands, showing drowned reef at shelf ed~e, labeled "shelf
edge feature." (b) Cross section of drowned reef. Radiocarbon dates indicate drowning coincided with
flooding of the shelf.

60

Schlager

140

120

100

SOMe

a)

ORO~ING

BY SEA-LEVEL PULSF ?

Numbers: ampfilude (In meters) at

effeclive rise at subsidence 50 m/Ma

ANOXIA
N=39
10

b)

Ratel of rise In Cretaceous 3.order cycles

DROWNING
N=34

!!!r:

.,

..

Figure 6-2. Frequency distribution through time of


oceanic anoxic events (top) and platform drownings
(bottom). The coincidence in time may well point to
a causal link. This mar be one example of
environmental contro on sequences and sequence
boundaries. (After Schlager & Philip, 1990.
Reproduced with permission of Kluwer Academic
Publishers)

GROWTH RATES OF DROWNED PLATFORMS


(CRETACEOUS)

g"'

N:46

1"\,

moving average
(numerous sources)

\Medlen

C"

~----~~------~------~------~~

m/Ma-

50

100

150

200

Figure 6-3. Growth rates of drowned Cretaceous


platforms show broad scatter and are similar to
growth rates of platforms in general; drowning
shows no bias towards fast-growing platforms,
indicating that the rate of long-term subsidence had
little influence on Cretaceous drownings. (After
Schla~er, 1991. Reproduced with permission of
Elsev1er Science Publishers)

tlo

,,r=J

z&o ...

rate o1 rise-

Figure 6-4. Sea level pulse as cause of platform


drowning-an evaluation. (a) Postulated eustatic
sea level curve (Haq et al., 1987) in the midCretaceous, a time of global platform drowning. A
platform subsiding at 50 m/Ma must have been
exposed during the dotted intervals of the curve
and experienced only the fluctuations drawn in full.
Their amplitudes, shown in meters on the graph,
are too small to move a platform out of the photic
zone. (b) Rates of third order cycles on the curve of
Haq et al. (1987) based on straight-line connections
of maxima and minima. The rates are one order of
magnitude lower than the short-term growth
potential of healthy platforms (Schlager, 1991, and
Figure 1-15. Reproduced with permission of
Elsevier Science Publishers)

Alternatives To Eustasy In Sequence Control 61

Figure 6-5. Earll Cretaceous sea-level curves from


various parts o the world show strong similarity,
indicating long-term eustatic control. The curve
from sequence stratigraphy is at variance with the
conventional record, probably because widespread
drowning unconformities in the Valan&inian were
misinterpreted as lowstand unconformities (e.g.
Figure 5-12). (After Schla~er, 1991. Reproduced with
permission of Elsevier Science Publishers)

Sea Level and Valanginian Drowning


IEDM.t.~~

ET AL H.t.Q ET AL.

HARRIS

KAUFFMAN

Aroblo

N Amerlco

125

uo
Ma

W Atrlco

Tith.

World

se~

a) w

b)

lewetrlslnq

28

~.,

....

Rllttve c:N"'"'OI .........

Sri1mic Mq~Aneft

aM

lhll27

hl.rus~

Sitt Ill

......

Figure 6-6. Environmental control of sequences. (a) Cretaceous


and Cenozoic stratigraphic sequences on the Blake Plateau.
(After Pinel & Popenoe, 1985). (b) Ages of sequences and
hiatuses on Blake Plateau after calibration by Ocean Drilling
Project Sites 627 and 628. Correlation with tl:ie sea-level curve of
Haq et al. (1987) is poor. Sedimentology of ODP holes indicates
that erosion and deposition on Blake Plateau are largely
determined by the shifting course of the Gulf Stream, i.e. by
changes in ocean environment rather than fluctuations of sea
level. (After Austin, Schla~er et al., 1988.) Reproduced with
permission of Ocean Drilling Program)

62

Schlager
n'

...

14'

u'

10'

...

400 km

BATHYMETRIC CONTOUR: 200m

Figure 6-7. Environmental control of sequences, Gulf of Mexico. (After Mullins et al., 1987.) (a) Study area on

West Florida Shelf is touched by the "Loop Current," a segment of the Gulf-Stream system. (b) Several
sequence boundaries can be mapped in the Cenozoic. (c) Boundary 1/11 does not correspond to a significant

event on the curve of Haq et al. (1987). Rather, it correlates with the closing of the Straits of Panama and the
establishment of the Loop Current-a tectonic event that induces environmental change.

Alternatives To Eustasy In Sequence Control 63

PROFILE ~2-44

PROGRADING '
CLINOFORMS

MID-MIOCENE
UNCONFORMITY
u

:
w
0

:1

.,"'....

,..

;.

1-

I
c)

TIME GlOBAl
0

f~

-=-_.:_;s-t="--..:-

...
......

......

\.

~~
2

,..

.,
....
~

AGEIIII.J.I

W.l'lORIOA

~.

II.

\..

\...

.......

'

\
\

SEA-lEVL
HIGH

...z ...
...
u g

ONlAP

CHAPTER7

CONCLUSIONS

(1987). Relative sea level enters into this system


because it controls accommodation. However, systems tracts are faithful recorders of sea-level only
where variations in sediment supply are small compared to variations in accommodation. In all other situations, the distribution of exposure features in the
sediment record provides a more reliable record of
sea-level positions than systems-tract geometry.
In carbonates, the situation is analogous, except
that outside sediment supply has to be replaced by G,
the in situ growth and production of carbonate material. Sediment geometry and systems tracts are again
controlled by two a priori independent rates:
A' = the rate of change in accommodation as
defined above, and
G' = dG/dt, the rate at which a platform produces
sediment and builds wave-resistant structures. The
maximum rate of growth that the system can sustain,
the growth potential, varies across the platform.
Therefore, we must distinguish between
Gr'= the growth rate of the platform rim, and
G '= the growth rate of the platform interior.
Bfsed on the relationship between A' and G', five
common patterns can be distinguished; they are illustrated in Figure 7-2.
The term A' is very closely tied to relative sea-level
change. One caveat must be made, though: A' as well
as S' represent changes of volume in time, the derivative dV I dt. Sequence stratigraphic models consider
either the change in the vertical dimension only, the
partial derivative (}z/ at, or the change in two dimensions, ((}z/(}t).(()xj()t). One tacitly assumes these partial derivatives to be good approximations of the
change in accommodation volume-a premise that
does not always hold.
The term S', rate of sediment supply, is only
remotely related to sea level and is a major cause of
extraneous controls on sequences, independent of sea
level. In siliciclastic systems, sediment supply is governed largely by conditions in the hinterland; the
growth term G' of carbonates is intimately tied to the
ocean environment and to organic evolution.
The essence of the above considerations is that
depositional sequences represent a composite record
of eustasy, tectonically driven, regional change in sea

Accommodation and sediment


supply-two basic controls on sequences
Application of sedimentologic principles to
sequence stratigraphy allows one, among others, to
better understand the various factors that cause depositional systems to generate sequences. Recognition of
direct and indirect controls is of the utmost importance
here. For instance, relative sea level has direct control
on the shifting strand line and the exposure and flooding of depositional surfaces; it has indirect control
(namely via changes in accommodation) on progradation and retreat of clinoforms. Indirect controls can be
very powerful but more often than not they must compete with other factors that have a similar effect. Control on depositional sequences is no exception.
Classical sequence stratigraphy postulates that systems tracts are essentially controlled by sea-level
change. Sedimentologic analysis leads to the conclusion that direct control of sea level extends only to a
small portion of the features in the sequence and systems tract model, such as exposure and flooding phenomena. For most other features, sea-level control is
exerted indirectly, primarily by changing the accommodation. And here sea level faces competition from
another factor-sediment supply. Progradation and
retreat of shelf margins, occurrence of condensed intervals as well as development of turbidite accumulations
are influenced at least as much by sediment supply as
they are by changes in accommodation. Below we
summarize the "double-control concept of systems
tracts" first for siliciclastics, then for carbonates.
Siliciclastics. We define S as the volume of sediment
in the system and A as the accommodation space, i.e.,
the space available for sedimentation. Then sequences
and systems tracts are primarily controlled by two
rates, A' and S'.
A'=dA/ dt, the rate of change in accommodation,
i.e. the sum of the rates of subsidence by crustal cooling, sediment loading, sediment compaction, structural deformation, eustasy etc.
S' = the rate of sediment supply.
Figure 7-1 summarizes the relationship of A' and S'
for the systems tracts and major surfaces of the classical sequence stratigraphic model as described by Vail
64

Conclusions 65

level and environmental change. This last term stands


largely for the factors modulating sediment supply.
The situation is analogous to that of the oxygen-isotope record of pelagic sediments, known to reflect the
combined effects of temperature, salinity, ice volume
and biogenic fractionation etc. The succession of
sequences, much like the oxygen isotope curve, is a
proxy indicator of sea level only when all other effects
are minor. However, even where this is not the case,
sequence stratigraphy can be a powerful tool for
stratigraphic correlation and prediction, offering
information on eustatic and regional changes of sea
level as well as events in the ocean environment. The
record of environmental change again contains global
events (such as certain mass drownings of platforms)
besides regional ones. To study this composite record,
the carbonate sequence stratigrapher should take a
three-step approach:
1. Establish unconformity-bounded sequences and
correlate them in a region, including platform-tobasin transitions if at all possible.
2. Establish a calendar of regional events, based on
the sedimentologic meaning of these sequences and
sequence boundaries.
3. Interpret these events in the context of known (!)
eustasy, regional tectonics as well as regional and
global environmental change.

Figure 7-1. Sedimentologic interpretation of


systems tracts in siliciclastics. They are generated
by the interplay of the rate of change in
accommodation, A', and the rate orchange in
sediment supply, S'. Exposure surfaces that extend
beyond the shelf break are diagnostic of relative
sea-level falls and cannot be generated by
variations of supply.

Messages for the seismic stratigrapher


Unconformity-bound sequences are well developed
in carbonates but eustatic sea level competes with tectonics and environmental change for sequence control.
Sequence boundaries are best defined as originally
proposed by Vail et al. (1977). Sedimentologically,
they represent important changes in the pattern of
sediment input and dispersal in a basin.
Optimum interpretation of sequences in carbonate
platforms requires more ground truth than in siliciclastics. (This situation is similar to interpretation of
wireline logs, where carbonates require more core
control for optimum results.)
Best seismic sea-level records on platforms can be
gleaned from the change in deviation of the shelf
break in prograding rimmed platforms. Vertically
stacked rims yield poor seismic records but provide
good sea-level curves via bore holes (from overall subsidence plus position of exposure surfaces).
Ideal carbonate ramps obey the same rules as siliciclastics in sea-level response. However the ideal carbonate ramp is rare, and the transition to rimmed
platforms very gradual and not easily recognizable in
seismic lines.
Besides lowstands with subsequent transgressions
and wide-spread reefs, drowning of platforms during
highstands produces pronounced and well traceable
sequence boundaries, often tied to oceanic events
rather than pulses of sea level. The drowning unconformity is a sequence boundary formed during a highstand of sea level.

a;, GP >A'

a;, a.;< A'

A'<O

Figure 7-2. Sedimentologic interpretation of basic


~eometries in carbonates, generated by the
mterplay of the rate of change in accommodation,
A', and the rate of carbonate growth, G'. (Gr' =
growth rate of platform rim, Gp' =growth rate of
platform interior).

66 Conclusions

Rimmed carbonate platforms shed most sediment


during highstands when the bank tops are flooded.
They form highstand wedges of sediment on the basin
margins. Associated turbidites may record exposure
and flooding of the banks as changes in composition.
Seismic reefs differ from stratigraphic reefs and ecologic reefs. Reefs defined by seismic reflection character and geometry will normally include the unstrati-

fied fore-reef debris as well as the back-reef apron.


Seismic unconformities are not congruent with outcrop unconformities. The seismic tool commonly
misses transitions involving condensed (pelagic) units
and shows unconformities instead. More significant
are pseudo-unconformities generated by rapid facies
change in adjacent beds, for instance at the base of
platform slopes.

CHAPTERS

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