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Marine GeoloJty, 44 (1981) 181--212 181

Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Amsterdam -- Printed in The Netherlands

CARBONATES AND RELATIVE CHANGES IN SEA LEVEL

CHRISTOPHER G. St. C. K E N D A L L and W O L F G A N G SCHLAGER


Gulf Research Company, P.O. Drawer2038, Pittsburgh,PA 15130 (U.S.A.)
Fisher Island Station, Miami Beach, FL 33139 (U.S.A.)
(Accepted for publication March 12, 1981)

ABSTRACT

Kendall, G.St.C. and Schlager, W., 1981. Carbonates and relative changes in sea level. In:
M.B. Cita and W.B.F. Ryan (Editors), Carbonate Platforms of the Passive-Type Conti-
nental Margins, Present and Past. Mar. Geol., 44: 181--212.

In the geologic record some of the most accurate gauges of changes in sea level
are the sediment type, geometry and diagenesis of carbonate shelves and platforms. This
is because carbonates frequently occur at or very near sea level and are usually less com-
pacted than siliciclastics.World-wide changes in relativesea level (the sum of eustatic
sea-level changes, sedimentation and crustal movements) have occurred repeatedly and
cyclicly through geologic time, producing characteristic responses in carbonates.
(I) Relative rises in sea level (usually caused by the cumulative effect of tectonic subsi-
dence and eustatic rise)may result in the following:
(A) Drowned carbonate reefs or platforms. Here carbonate growth potential is exceeded
by relative sea-level rise,and is characterized by shallow-water sediments, overlain by
hardgrounds and/or deep-water sediments, some of which may be condensed sequences.
(B) Platforms where only the fast growing rim and patches of the interior are able to
match sea-level rise while the remainder of the platform is drowned (temporarily).
(C) Platforms which keep up and maintain a fiat top at sea level and contain shallow-
water sediments whose thickness at the least matches the height of the sea-level rise.If
terrigenous supply is limited, prograding sheets of shelf carbonate occur (frequently
capped by supratidal evaporites), with prograding shelf-margin carbonate clinoforms and
turbidites. If terrigenous supply is high, the shelf carbonates encroach on deltaics.
(2) Relative drops in sea level (caused by crustal uplift or by subsidence being outpaced
by a eustatic drop in sea level) cause karst and soil development over shelves and plat-
forms, deposition of "deep-water" evaporites in adjacent semi-enclosed basins and in open
marine basins the deposition of deltaic and aeolian clastics that bypassed the shelf.
Falls are accompanied by platform-wide fresh-water diagenesis. During relativesea-level
rises marine diagenesis is c o m m o n in the subtidal portions of the shoaling-upward carbon-
ares, and fresh-water diagenesis and dolomitization and sulphate deposition is c o m m o n in
their intertidal and supratidal portions.
The stratigraphic significance of these reponses to relativesea-level change is that many
are tied to eustatic events and so are predictable within a basin of deposition.

INTRODUCTION

This paper, largely a review and interpretation of existing data, was


p r o m p t e d by recent development in seismic stratigraphy, which is rapidly

0025--3227/81/0000--0000/$02.75 © 1981 Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company


182

becoming a universally accepted tool for mapping sedimentary sequences.


The interpretation of seismic records becomes more accurate as one reduces
the options by specifying what is geologically likely and what is impossible.
In recent years, seismic stratigraphy has benefitted from two developments:
the establishment of semi-quantitative, eustatic sea-level charts based on the
onlap of depositional sequences onto continental margins and cratonic
interiors (Vail et al., 1977; Kauffman, 1977; Hancock and Kauffman, 1978;
Hallam, 1978; Harris et al., 1980), and the progress in modelling and predict-
ing subsidence (e.g., Sclater et al., 1971; Watts and Ryan, 1976; Watts and
Steckler, 1979).
Rate and direction of relative sea-level changes (i.e., the sum of subsidence,
eustacy and sedimentation) can now be predicted within fairly narrow limits
for most Mesozoic and Cenozoic ocean margins. This in turn poses the ques-
tion: to what degree axe depositional features and facies patterns predictable
from known changes in relative sea level? This report is a step towards tack-
ling this question for carbonate sediments. Carbonates, with their environ-
ment-dependent in-situ sediment source, their cemented platform margins
(which are relatively wave-resistant) and intensive early diagenesis, are differ-
ent to siliciclastics, although a number of basic principles of deposition apply
equally to both sediment families. In this study, it turned out that in order to
build the house, we first had to secure the ground and present an inventory
of the types of responses to relative changes of sea level in the geologic
record. This constitutes the main part of this report. Precise correlations
with actual events, and with the rate and amplitude of relative sea-level
change, are still plagued by formidable uncertainties in stratigraphy and in
our knowledge of sea-level history, but there are some encouraging examples.
Stratigraphic sequences of shallow-water deposits and their facies patterns
are primarily controlled by the rates and type of sedimentation, local crustal
movements, and eustatic sea level (Fig.l). These three controls act in consort
with one another, though, locally, one control may be more important than
another. The facies anatomy of carbonate shelves and platforms reflects the
combined effect of these three parameters.
Often it is difficult to separate the relative importance of these three
primary controls whatever the sediments. This is because the same geometry
and facies distribution may be the result of an infinite number of combina-
tions of these controls. Suess (1906), supported by Grabau (1936) and
others, proposed that eustacy is the major cause for the differentiation of
stratigraphic sequences. Stille (1924), on the other hand, favored the com-
bined influence of sea-level changes and tectonism. In contrast, Umbgrove
(1939} and Kuenen (1939) related relative sea-level changes to sedimentation,
eustacy and tectonism.
Pennsylvanian and Permian cyclic deposits from the western U.S.A. are
related to crustal movement by Feray (1967), eustacy by Wilson (1967), and
depositional controls by Brown (1967), and Robertson Handford and
Dutton (1980). Similarly, cyclicity in the Pleistocene carbonates of Barbados
(Mesolella et al., 1970) and the Permian carbonates of West Texas and New
183

LOW
SEA
LEVEL LEVEL SEA s~A

EUSTATIC CHANGES ~v ,~ RELATIVE CHANGES=L IV ~ ........


F*tL I I POINT OF
GREATEST
IV

OF SEA LEVEL -~ 141 OFAS,EN


ATL~,VEEL, ~-FIIiI' % 8T'~Lo'STI~AI;:I
AGAINST TIME AGAINST TIME I ~
lLANe
' \ ........ ) \
~. POINTOF GREATEST
COASTALONLA~

PHASE OF R E L A T I V E SEA LEVEL AND C O A S T A L O N L A P DETERMINED BY R A T E S OF SUBSIDENCE

SEDIMENT RESPONSE TO CHANGES IN RELATIVE SEA LEVEL.


SHELVES FREQUENTLY UNDERGO TECTONIC DEFORMATION AS THEY FORM
BUT DESPITE THEIR DIFFERENCES, TEND TO BUILD TO SEA L E V E L

A. NARROW SHELF: - B. WIDE SHELF : -

DEVELOPED WI~ERE RATES OF DEVELOPED WHERE TECTONIC SUBSIDENCE


SEDIMENTATION ARE LOW OR IS LOW OR SEDIMENTATION RATES ARE H I G H
TECTONIC SUBSIDENCE ms H I G H
..................................................................................................

I. RELATIVE FAST RISE.


FOINT OF GREATEST POINT OF GREATESTCO*STAL OhLAP
~COASTAL O,LAP

I I 12~ -

TRANSGRESSION IN RESPONSE TO RELATIVE SEA LEVEL RISE EXCEEDING SEDIMENTATION.


...................................................................................................

. & nT RELATIVE RISE


POINT OF GREATEST ~pOINT OF GREATESTCOASTALO~LAP
I~CO*STAL ONLAP

~f/-I~ LAND

REGRESSION IN RESPONSE TO SEDIMENTATION EXCEEDING RELATIVE SE/~ LEVEL RISE.


..................................................................................................

l%T RELATIVE FALL

A EUSTATICDROP IN SEA LEVEL PRODUCESWIDESPREAD UNCONFORMITIESBECAUSETHE SEDIMENTSURFACE


WHICH WAS BUILT TO SEA LEVEL IS NOW EXPOSED.

Fig.1. General interrelationship of relative sea-level changes, tectonism and sedimentation.


Mexico (Silver and Todd, 1969) are ascribed to the complex interplay of sea
level, crustal movement and reef growth.
We concur with Wilson (1975) who concludes that "cyclic" sedimentation
and sea-level fluctuation, independent of local tectonics, are both the rule in
geologic history. So, as Vail et al. (1977) and Pitman (1978) show, when
considering sedimentation, relative sea level cannot be divorced from sedi-
mentation rates, eustacy, or subsidence. As understanding of these phenom-
ena improves it is becoming easier to separate the different controls. Thermal
subsidence can be approximated by an empirical equation (Parsons and
184

Sclater, 1977) and can be differentiated from the effects of sea-level fluctua-
tions caused by changes in rates of sea-floor spreading (Hays and Pitman,
1973). The isostatic response of the crust to sea-level changes can be isolated
by substracting the effects of thermal cooling and sediment loading. The
latter are considered in terms of sediment thicknesses and their ages derived
from well data (Van Hinte, 1978; Steckler and Watts, 1978). Watts and
Steckler (1979) and Vail and Hardenbol (1979), have gone on to refine this
system and use it for determining absolute changes in sea level. As absolute
changes in sea level are separated, so it will become easier to identify and
separate the effects of local tectonics and sedimentation.

Objectives

Our paper attempts to set forth the general ways that shelf and platform
carbonates respond to changes in relative sea level. Armed with these basic
concepts, we can explain and sometimes predict carbonate facies relationships.
As the timing and magnitude of eustatic changes become better defined so
will these guidelines. The paper is based on theoretical considerations, as well
as examples from the geologic record for which sea level, crustal movements,
and sedimentation rates are usually well constrained. These examples range
from those of the Quaternary, where responses are rapid and sea level is
known from detailed charts based upon independent evidence, to those from
the much older geologic record, where sea-level movements are inferred from
a variety of sources, including the sea-level onlap charts proposed by Vail et
al. (1977).
To illustrate how relative sea level controls carbonate sedimentation, we
will briefly summarize some concepts related to sea-level change and then
classify and illustrate the most common responses of carbonate sedimenta-
tion to relative sea-level changes.

CONCEPTS ASSOCIATED WITH FLUCTUATIONS IN RELATIVE SEA LEVEL

Causes of sea-level change

Relative sea-level changes may have a number of causes, many of which


have been reviewed by Pitman (1978} and by Donovan and Jones (1979).
They may occur where the depositional setting subsides or is uplifted. These
effects may be related to faulting, thermal regime, salt diapirism or isostacy.
Local differences occur where the underlying sediment compacts at different
rates.
Other relative changes can be caused when basins become isolated either
by the development of sedimentary or tectonic sills or by eustatic drops in
sea level. If this isolation occurs at low latitudes, evaporative draw-down may
produce a corresponding ctropin sea level, as in the Mediterranean.
Eustatic sea-level changes have two commonly identified causes, Either
they are glacially induced or there is a change in the shape and so volume of
185

the ocean basins due to tectonics. Other less common causes include major
meteorite impacts (Lemcke, 1975; Smit and Hertogen, 1980), submarine vol-
canic outpourings (Schlanger and Premoli-Silva, 1981), and desiccation or
sudden flooding of enclosed ocean basins such as the South Atlantic in the
Cretaceous.

Orders of sea-level cycles

Vail et al.'s (1977) relative sea-level charts established for the Phanerozoic,
are a superposition of several orders of cycles. Unfortunately, the relative
importance of the various orders of sea-level cycles to carbonate sedimenta-
tion appears to be inversely proportional to the certainty with which they
are known. Timing and amplitude of first-order and second-order cycles are
well documented by the onlap of stratigraphic sequences on the cratons
(Sloss, 1963), by datable unconformities and the relative lateral position of
one sedimentary sequence to another (Vail et al., 1977 vs. Hays and Pitman,
1973). First-order cycles may last over hundred million years, which is much
longer than the average life span of a carbonate platform. Vail et al.'s (1977)
cycles of second and particularly of third order, caused by rates of eustatic
sea-level change of tens or hundreds of Bubnoffs, can successfully compete
with tectonic subsidence, which commonly ranges from 10 to 100 Bubnoffs
(1 Bubnoff = 1 mm/1000 years, Fischer, 1969) and have had a strong
influence on carbonate deposition. However, there is still uncertainty as to
the exact amplitude of the lower-order cycles and their timing (see Vail and
Hardenbol, 1979). Furthermore, we believe that there are fluctuations of
still higher frequency than even the third-order cycles of Vail et al. (1977).
Some of the most prominent features in carbonate platform stratigraphy,
such as drowning events (Schlager, 1980) or high-frequency cyclic deposition
(e.g., Fischer, 1964; Wilson, 1975, p.281), may be related to sea-level fluctu-
ations in the 10,000--100,000-yr. domain. These cycles of fourth and fifth
order are beyond the resolving power of the state-o¢.the-art seismic strati-
graphy as used by Vail et al. in 1977. However, if the system of combining
well data and seismic cross-sections outlined by Vail and Hardenbol (1979)
includes detailed measured sections, detailed well descriptions and high-
resolution seismic cross-sections, in some cases these cycles may be resolved.
For the present, we can best recognize these higher-frequency cycles in out-
crop, from not only the Neogene and Quaternary but older rocks. We should
also realize that these high-frequency fluctuations have a most profound
impact on shallow.water carbonate deposition. Indeed, we feel that the
strongest cases for sea-level control on neritic carbonate sedimentation are
associated with short cycles or singular events. In Pennsylvanian and Permian,
the cycles are probably of glacio-eustatic origin (see Van Siclen, 1958;
Peterson and Ohlen, 1963; Silver and Todd, 1969; Meissner, 1972). In
contrast, Huh et al. (1977) and Esteban and Giner {1977} ascribe cycles to a
short-term draw-down of sea level in evaporitic basins.
186

Response of carbonate sedimentation to changes in sea level

As sea-level charts are accepted by geologists so their approach to strati-


graphy has changed. This is because they can use this understanding of sea-
level variation predictively and couple it to rates of subsidence and rates of
carbonate and clastic sedimentation, and so construct conceptual models for
different geologic settings through geologic time (Figs.2--8). The construc-
tion of these predictive models is based on the realization that different rates
of sea-level rise or fall will affect both carbonates and clastics in different
ways and create specific geometries. By looking at Vail et al.'s (1977) charts,
particularly the revised curve for the Tertiary (Vail and Hardenbol, 1979}
and Kauffman's (1977) charts for the Cretaceous, it is possible to determine
when one might expect rapid rises, stillstands, slow rises or falls and to relate
these to the geologic record to see what the general response of both carbon-
ate and clastic sediments has been. In some cases the pattern of sediments
match the charts and in others, the charts will need to be modified, particu-
larly where a high frequency of sedimentary cycles is common. In the discus-
sion which follows we consider the effects of changes in relative sea level on
carbonates.
Under favorable conditions, carbonate platforms and, particularly, reefs
can be shown to grow at rates of 103--104 Bubnoffs (Macintyre and Glynn,
1976; Adey, 1978; Lighty et al., 1978; Schlager, 1979) (Table I) and thus
match even the fastest known rises of sea level such as the glacio-eustatic
pulse during the Holocene (at rates of 103-104 Bubnoffs, Adey, 1978)
(Table I); healthy platforms easily outpace long-term basin subsidence,
generally on the order of 10--100 Bubnoffs (Fischer, 1975; Schwab, 1976)
(Table I).
However, adverse conditions can reduce the growth potential of carbonate
platforms and reefs by several orders of magnitude. Consequently, the known

ISOLATED AND ATTACHED CARBONATE PLATFORM


DEPOSITIONAL SETTINGS.

FtSOLATEDCARBONATEI
, I , LATFO.MS f

' @ '

SLOW
SUBSIDENCE
RAPID
SUBSIDENCE

Fig,2. General carbonate responses to relative sea-level change.


187

T. PLATFORMS DROWNED DUE TO SLOW CARBONATE ACCUMULATION, POSSIBLY


TERMINATED BY CLIMATE, CLAY LADEN WATER OR TOO GREAT A WATER DEPTH.

DROWNED REEFS ON PLATFORM ]

PELA

DROWNED OFF PLATFORM REEFS


INITIATED BY BIOLOGICAL ACCRETION
OR ON OLD HIGHS I HARDGROUNDS FORMED DUE TO
LOW RATES OF SEDIMENT ACCUMULATION

'rr. TERMINATED BY CLASTIC POLLUTION.

Fig.3. Response of isolated carbonate platform to a relative sea-levelrise which exceeds


carbonate growth potential and causes drowning.

responses of reefs and carbonate platforms to sea-level rises cover a spectrum


from complete failure to keep pace with the rising sea to situations where
the rise is far exceeded by carbonate growth. Response of the carbonate
system is not simply a function of the rate of relative sea-level rise but rather
the difference between the rate of rise and the growth potential of a plat-
form. To predict the response of a platform we need to know and quantify
both the rate of relative rise and the platform growth potential, including
its variation during the rise. Data on these variables are just beginning
to appear {e.g., on rates of rise: Hancock and Kauffman, 1979; on growth
potential of platforms: Schlager, 1980). Except for the Holocene, these
data are insufficient to warrant a quantitative treatment of the subject.
188

"r. RATE OF RELATIVE SEA LEVEL RISE APPROXIMATELY MATCHES


GROWTH POTENTIAL OF RIM.

I ~,~o.~?~,;,;
~°V~.,~ ~'L ~Z;~.',~'.~;TED~ i
/ 7 / ~ /. T-
///~,\~\
// // /7 \ I
I DEE~ CAR,ONATEA=O"°~AT,ON I
[SLOWSDURINGRAPIDRISE& GENERALI
/ -- PLATFORMSEDIMENTATION i
////// \\ I,~;,°',N.T= J

DEVELOPMENT OF HARD GROUNDS


AND CONDENSED SEQUENCE

11' A.GROWTH POTENTIAL OF INTERIOR BEGINS TO EXCEED RELATIVE SEA LEVEL RISE.

PINNACLES BEGIN TO 1
CATCH UP W,TH BUILDUPS CAICH UP wWITH|
~,BU/LDUPSC.A~UCALLO
[FAUNA CAP. J

] I B. GROWTH POTENTIAL EXCEEDS RELATIVE SEA LEVEL RISE AND


C A R B O N A T E S COVER WHOLE SHELF ON REACHING SEA LEVEL.

Fig.4. Response of isolated carbonate platform to a relative sea-level rise which exceeds
the carbonate platform growth potential except at the rim and over some patches.
189

BUILDUPS INITIATED ON
HARDGROUND SURFACES
DURING OR FOLLOWING
RAP D RISE.

~ ~ : , - ~ ~--_~
I "~, ~i,,~ ~i ~M>~.-~ LZ,-~, ;",~.-~j~-----~

PE'AG,C
S.ALES
ENVELOPING"I ~ ~ . ~ _ - - - / ' j ~ : ~ ( ~ ~ ~ ~:~--E::~---T~ -
PREVIOUS I / / k : ~ J ~ ~ - ~ ' ~ T ~ , - - - r - L - r / ~ T" " ~ " ~- --:"
I BUILDUPS I // - ~ / /
[AND MARGIN.J / / / / / /
~ / I// [~ I N C E INITIALLY CARBONATE
/ l/" / I ~ CANNOT KEEP PACE WITH SEA
~ U A L L Y MARGIN PROGRADES
FORMED DURING RAPID RISE/ I WHEN CARBONATE PRODUCTION EXCEEDS
J I SEA LEVEL RISE.

Fig.5. Response of carbonate margins to a relativesea-levelrisewhich at firstexceeds the


margins carbonate growth potential and then at leastmatches the growth potential.

However, within the spectrum of responses of carbonate platforms to


sea-level rise, one can identify a few basic types of response and define them
in terms of inequalities. It is this approach that will be followed here. In
order to define these types of response we have to introduce and explain
first some new or unfamiliar terms.

Bucket principle. We believe that the basic growth anatomy of a carbonate


platform is that of a bucket, held together by stiff rims of "competent"
material and filled with "incompetent" lagoonal or tidal deposits (MacNeil,
1954; Klovan, 1974; Wilson, 1975, Fig.3). This pattern is the result of
the selective early cementation of the carbonates, which accumulate along
the platform margin, while the carbonates which accumulate behind this
margin remain uncemented (Land and Goreau, 1970; James et al., 1976;
James and Ginsburg, 1980; Longman, 1980; Shinn et al., 1981). The sedi-
ments of the rim range from carbonate shoal sands and muds to organic
frame reefs. Interior and rim may have different growth potentials. The
overall growth potential of a platform is determined by the growth poten-
tial of its rim. During rapid relative rises of sea level, the rim may keep
pace while the platform interior lags behind. Platforms with deep lagoons
result. As the rim rises above the platform floor, the platform interior
becomes a sediment trap which is quickly filled, should the rate of relative
sea-level rise decrease. As a consequence, the growth potential (or accumu-
lation potential} of the platform interior commonly increases during a
rise of sea level.
190

SUBTIDAL MARGIN, MAJOR IFILLS TO SEA LEVEL.


SOURCE OF CARBONATES 1 SHOALING CYCLES CAUSED
FOR PROGRADING FLANK. 1 BY FLUCTUATIONS IN SEA
LEVEL CHANGE & RATES
.~.~ ~ . , ~.. OF SEDIMENTATION.

~~ ~IAGRAM]
NEXT
EACH MAJOR RISE IN SEA LEVEL MAY BE REPRESENTED BY ONE
OR SEVERAL UPWARD SHOALING SEQUENCES.

(1) (2)
_ - v ~ A v ~ ---_ A - A = KARSTIC SURFACE
- --~-- ~ ------ --~.-~--~-_~_ B : ALGAL STROMATOLITE

~I~,~Is ~ ,~/~, ~1~~ ° = OvE"DEE"


,AGOO.A.rRA,SG,ESS.,EOARBO.ATE
"--"--'--:'::-B------~" ~'I ~ C ( , ( c D LIME SANDS

t
~ ~ -.---_-__--_-

DIFFERENCE BETWEEN 1 8. 2 CAUSED BY "DAMPING"


OF CARBONATE SEDIMENTATION RATES.

Fig.6. Response of isolated platform whose carbonate growth potential at least matches
and may exceed relative sea-level rise.

Carbonate bodies not built by the bucket principle are the ramps of
Ahr (1973). They develop gently sloping flanks which probably reflect
the gradual shoreward decrease of wave action, much like a siliclastic shelf.
Basin starvation and a relative sea-level rise may cause ramps to evolve into
steep carbonate cemented rimmed shelves (Wilson, 1975).
191

G R O W T H P O T E N T I A L M A T C H E S OR E X C E E D S RELATIVE SEA L E V E L RISE.

IFOLLOWING RISE. CARBONATES QUICKLY FILL TO /

LEVEL RrSES. PRODUCE SHOALING CYCLES.


rCA%OBTOALMA"O'N MA"OR SOORCE OE1 /f ~,SDLAFED OEPRESS,ON F,LLEO SY SEA I
BONATES ON PRQGRADINGFLANK ~ /~ ~ I EVAPORATESFASTER THAN IT FILLS. I

SUPRATIDAL EVAPORITESAND OCCASIONAL


THE
GREATER
MARGIN
STARVATION
MAY STEEPEN
rN BASIN
NOW ~DUE TO CLASTICS
THIN BEDDED
ON DOLOMITES.
ATTACHED SHELVES
AEOLIAN
WATER DEEPENSOFF THE MARGN i

CARBONATE SHELF - CLASTIC ENCROACHMENT AND PROGRADATION

1. RELATIVE SEA LEVEL RISE

rCARBONATE ENCROACHES ON ] I CELTAIC MIGRATION I


/DELTAICS WHICH RETREAT AS / )INDEPENDENT OF SEA LEVEL I
|SEA LEVEL RISES. / / C A U S E S INTERDIGITATION I
CLASTICS I

2. RELATIVE SEA LEVEL FALL

[oDEL~)A/CSRENCN~OEACHFROM LANDWARD]

AT A SEA LEVELLOW, COURSECLASTICS


MAY BYPASS A NARROWSHELFAND

Fig.7. Response of isolated and attached carbonate margins whose growth potential at
least matches and may exceed relativesea-levelrise.
192

A, BASIN OPEN TO SEA. B, BASIN BARRED SO ONLY


NET INFLOW OF S E A
I CLASlIC BYPASSING SHELF
I THROUGH LOCAL CANYONS
, /'
' [AEO~i;,~ GL; sTics] i AEOLIAN CLASTICS I
,' ." ON ATTACHED ON ATTACHED
,,' / I PLATFOAMS // PL/&TFORMS ~

oF EVAPOR,TE RROOOC ,O.


SKS O A T,G..YPA .,NG SHELF,

Fig.8. Response of carbonate provinces to a relative sea-level drop.

Carbonate reefs. Reefs formed along basin margins are relatively common
in the geological column. The two most common reefs are: (1) those formed
in the basin, and on and at the base of the foreslopes of basin margins, and
(2) those formed in the shoal water of platforms at or back from the basin
margin (Table II, A, B).
Both forms of reefs nucleate over topographic highs. The origins of the
highs are various. Most are accretional and related to local opportunism of
the fauna. Less commonly, the highs are tectonic, as they are for the Paleo-
cene Dahra reefs in the Sirte Basin of Libya (Terry and Williams, 1969).
They may also be karstic remnants developed where a sea-level fall has
exposed a previously shallow-water shelf to subaerial processes (Purdy,
1974). These karst features may be drowned by the next relatively rapid
sea-level rise. Though the now deeper shelf may be unable to sustain regional
carbonate sedimentation, the isolated karst topographic highs are able to

TABLEI

Rates of sea-level movement, tectonic movement and carbonate sedimentation in Bubnoffs


(1 Bubnoff = 1 mm per 1000 years; Fischer, 1969)

A. Sea-level movement
(1) 1st-order cycles of Vail et al. (1977) and Vail and Hardenbol (1979): a few
Bubnoffs
(2) 2nd- and 3rd-order cycles of Vail et al. (1977) and Vail and Hardenbol (1979):
10--100 Bubnoffs
(3) Holocene rise (glacio-eustatic): 103--104 Bubnoffs (Adey, 1978)
(4) Alpine Triassic falls: in excess of 100 Bubnoffs (Fischer, 1964)

B. Tectonic movement
(1) Average tectonic subsidence: 10---100 Bubnoffs (Fischer, 1975; Schwab, 1976)
(2) Subsidence at Mid-Ocean Ridge over flint 2 m.y.: 250 Bubnoffs (Sclater et al., 1971 )

C. Carbonate sedimentation
(1) Holocene reef/phtform growth: 10~--10 ' Bubnofs (Adey, 1978)
193

T A B L E II

Examples of carbonate responses to changes in relativesea level

A. Foreslope and basin reef buildups G. M o d e m platforms with survivalof rim and
patches

1. R e c e n t l i t h o h e r m s of the Straits of Florida 1. The Queensland Shelf Great Barrier Reef and
( N e u m a n n et al., 1977). shelf atolls(Maxwell, 1968).
2. The Jurassic sponge reefs of M o r o c c o (Evans 2. A m e m b e r of Pacific atollswith deep lagoons
a n d Kendall, 1977). (E.G. Emery et al.,1954).
3. The C a r b o n i f e r o u s Waulsortian M o u n d s (Lees, 3. The southern part of the Belize Shelf
1964). (Wanfland et al.,1975).
4. The Devonian Keg River Reefs of A l b e r t a 4. The islandshelf of St. Croix, Virgin Islands
( L a n g s t o n a n d Chin, 1967). (Adey and Burke, 1976; Adey et ai.,1977).
5. The Silurian Michigan Basin Reefs (Mesolelia 5. Parts of the western Yucatan Shelf (Logan et al.,
et ah, 1974). 1969), where the drowning is almost complete
6. The Middle Ordovician offshelf b u i l d u p s of and the rim is only marked by widely spaced,
Virginia (Read, 1978). isolated coral reefs.

B. Buildups o n shallow w a t e r p l a t f o r m s H. Ancient reefs which show an initiallag followed


by catch up and keep up

1. The R e c e n t reefs of Bikini a n d E n i w e t o k in 1. Silurianreefs of the Michigan Basin (Mesolella


the Pacific (Tracy a n d L a d d , 1974). et al., 1974).
2. The Miocene of Indonesia (Vincelette a n d 2. The Paleocene of L i b y a (Terry and Williams,
S oeparjadi, 1976). 1969).
3. The Paleocene of L i b y a (Terry a n d Williams, 3. The Jurassic M o r o c c a n Pinnacle Reefs of the
1969). rich area of the middle high Atlas (Evans a n d
4. The Devonian S w a n Hills a n d L e d u c of west- Kendall, 1973).
e m C a n a d a (Stoakes a n d Wendte, 1980). 4. The Devonian reefs of the M o r o c c a n a n d Spanish
5. The Devonian of the C a n n i n g Basin of west- S a h a r a (Dumestre a n d Illing, 1967).
e m Australia (Play ford, 1980). 5. The Winnepegosis Keg River Reefs f r o m the
6. The Middle Ordvvician of Virginia (Read, Devonian of C a n a d a ( L a n g s t o n a n d Chin, 1967).
1978). 6. The Devonian of the C a n n i n g Basin of western
Australia (Piayford, 1980).
7. The Ordovician m o u n d s of Virginia (Read, 1978).

C. Facies selectivehardgrounds I. Fiat t o p p e d shallow-water c a r b o n a t e p l a t f o r m s

1. The R e c e n t of the Persian G u l f (Shinn, 1969). 1. The Permian of the G u a d a l u p e Mrs. (King,
2. The R e c e n t of the B a h a m i a n P l a t f o r m s ( T a f t 1 9 4 8 ; Newell et al., 1953).
et al.,1968; Dravis, 1 9 7 7 ; a n d Harris, 1979). 2. Triassic of the n o r t h e r n a n d s o u t h e r n Alps
3. The R e c e n t flanks of the B a h a m i a n Platforms (Fischer, 1 9 6 4 ; O t t , 1 9 6 7 ; Zanki, 1 9 6 7 ; Bosellini
(Mullins a n d N e u m a n n , 1 9 7 9 ) . a n d Rossi, 1974).
4. The E u r o p e a n C r e t a c e o u s chalks b y B r o m l e y 3. Devonian of t h e C a n n i n g Basin ( P l a y f o r d a n d
(1968). L o w r y , 1 9 6 6 ; Piayfo~l, 1980).
4. The C r e t a c e o u s of Mexico a n d the G u l f Coast
(Coogan et al., 1 9 7 2 ; Wilson, 1 9 7 4 ; P.325).

D. Widespread hardgrounds J. H o l o c e n e reefs w h i c h m a t c h e d sea level rises

1. The Devonian of western Canada (Stoakes, in 1. The Galeta Fringing R e e f in the C a r i b b e a n


press;and Wendte, in press). (Macintyre a n d G l y n n , 1976).
2. The Callovian of the Paris Basin where they 2. The Florida Fringing Reef (Lighty et al.,
can be shown to become younger continent- 1978).
w a r d (Purser, 1969).
3. O t h e r levels in Jurassic of western E u r o p e
(H aliam, 1969).

E. D r o w n e d reefs a n d p l a t f o r m s K. A n c i e n t buildups w h i c h m a t c h sea level rise

1. The Devonian of central a n d w e s t e r n E u r o p e 1. The Devonian o f C a n a d a (Stoakes a n d Wendte,


(Tucker, 1 9 7 4 ; Krebs, 1974). 1980).
2. The Jurassic o f the T e t h y a n R e a l m (Bosellini, 2. S o m e of the Pleistocene A c r o p o r a - P a l m a t a Reefs
1 9 7 3 ; Bernoulli a n d J e n k y n s , 1974). o f B a r b a d o s (Mesolleia et al., 1970).
3. The Cretaceous o f the Pacific a n d A t l a n t i c
194

TABLE II (continued)

E. Drowned reefs and platforms (continued)


(Matthews et al., 1974~ Arthur and Schlanger,
1979; Schlanger, in press).
4. The Devonian of the Canning Basin of western
Australia to Table 7 (Playford, 1980).
5. Carbonate ramp-to-basin transitions and fore-
land basin evolution, Middle Ordovician,
Virginia Appalachians, (Read, 1980).

F. Reefs with fibrous carbonate cement cavity L. Basinal evaporltes and shallow water carbonate
fill margins

1. The Mississippian stromatactis reefs of 1. The Paradox Basin (Peterson and Owler, 1963).
England (Bathtu~t, 1959). 2. The Sverdrup Basin (Davies, 19'/7).
2. The Leduc and Golden Spike Devonian reefs 3, The Zechstein Basin (Richter-BelTburg, 1955).
of western Canada (Walls, 1979). 4. The Michigan Basin Silurian (Mesolella et al.,
3. Some of the Devonian buildups of Central 1974;Huh et al., 1977).
Europe (Krebs, 1974). 5. The Tertiary--Messinian evaporites of the
4. Some of the Triassic buildups of the Calcar- Mediterranlan Sea (Hsii, 19'/2).
eous Alps (Zankl, 1968). 6. The Miocene of the Red Sea (Heybroek, 1965).
5. The Dolomites of N. Italy (Bosellini and Rossi,
1974).
6. Devonian reef of the Canning Basin, western
Australia (Play ford, 1980).
7. Middle Ordovician buildups of Virginia (Read,
1978).

promote carbonate sedimentation. Sometimes the shallow-water shelf is


drowned by a rapid relative sea-level rise before subaerial exposure can take
place. In this case, carbonate sedimentation may again be terminated across
most of the previous shallow-water carbonate shelf but topographic highs
formed by subaerial islands become the nucleus of the overlying reefs.
However, most of the nuclei of ancient build.ups observed by the authors
and others are accretional in origin, like the cores of the Devonian build-ups
from western Canada (Wendte, 1981).
Cementation fabrics within carbonate build-ups are often marine and are,
in some cases, dominated by fibrous cements {Table II, F). Marine cementa-
tion in carbonate build-ups appears to depend on the steepness and facies of
the build-up, which in turn are controlled by rates of change of relative sea
level and more particularly sediment accumulation rates. Build-ups with low-
angle margins, like the Devonian Swan Hills reef of Alberta have little marine
cement, but most frequently contain late burial cements (Wong, 1979). In
contrast, build-ups with high-angle margins, particularly in settings exposed
to the pumping action of breaking waves, have dominantly marine cements
in marginal positions, but little marine cementation in the interior (Playford,
1980). This latter is commonly filled by late-stage burial cements {Walls et al.,
1979).
The geometric control on the marine cementation of carbonate margins can
be seen in the Permian Capitan Limestone of the Guadelupd Mountains. Both
Babcock (1977) and Yurewicz (1977) show that marine cementation becomes
more prevalent in the younger Capitan, as it progTessively steepens.
195

Drowning. Reefs and carbonate platforms are drowned when the rate of
relative rise of sea level exceeds the vertical accumulation rate and the reef or
platform becomes submerged below the euphoric zone and terminating
prolific carbonate production by photosynthetic organisms. Reefs and plat-
forms suffocated by influx of clastics are excluded from this category.

Incipient drowning. Incipient drowning results from deepening within the


euphotic zone, and occurs where a relative rise of sea level exceeds the
growth potential of the carbonate ecosystem, but before the process goes to
completion, the system is able to recover because the rate of sea-level rise
decreases relative to the carbonate growth potential.

Start-up phase. The Holocene record, as well as numerous examples from the
ancient, contain evidence that it takes some time to start-up the "carbonate
factory" after periods of exposure. A rapid rise of the sea may thus "take a
reef or platform by surprise" and initiate a start-up period during which the
system runs below its full growth potential, lagging behind the rise of the
sea. In the Holocene, Adey (1978) estimates this lag-period to be on the
order of 500--1000 years, but much longer periods of subdued growth seem
to be indicated by the geologic record.
In ancient platforms, analogues to these modern lag deposits can be found
to include extensive hard grounds, condensed sequences and pelagic facies.
For instance, carbonate hard grounds associated with carbonate platforms
are common in the geologic record. They occur in two forms. One is facies-
selective and has a patchy distribution through sequences (Table II, C). The
other form is more widespread and cuts across facies. We believe that these
latter widespread hard grounds (Table II, D) probably trace sea-level rises
during which carbonate sedimentation terminates and cementation, grazing,
and boring of the old carbonate sediment/water interface result. In all cases
(Table II, D) these latter hard grounds seem to coincide with periods of
rapid relative sea-level rise on the charts of Vail et al. (1977).
Similarly, condensed sequences commonly occur on sea mounts, on
terraces of platform slopes, and on shelf edges. As with hard grounds, we
speculate that the drowning of platforms, which precedes deposition of these
condensed sequences, is caused by very rapid rises of relative sea level with
respect to carbonate gro~, ~h potential. Once a platform or reef is drowned,
slow and intermittent pelagic deposition may prevail for considerable time.
This is because the former platform represents a topographic high that is
often swept by currents and is remote from terrigenous influx. The first-
phase cements of these carbonates are commonly marine (Purser, 1969;
Lighty, 1977a; Stoakes, 1981; Wendte, 1981).
The existence of an initial lag period then implies that the growth poten-
tial of a carbonate platform or reef is often considerably reduced during the
first stages of a sea-level rise.
196

CARBONATE RESPONSE TO RISING RELATIVE SEA-LEVEL CHANGE

The three types of responses to sea-level rise commonly observed in the


Holocene as well as in the distant geologic past are listed in Table III, are
illustrated in Figs.2--8, and will be discussed in the following section.

Type A: drowning (Fig.3)

Drowning is the result of the complete failure of a reef or platform to


keep pace with a relative rise of sea level so that it leaves the realm of
shallow-water carbonate sedimentation becoming submerged below the
euphotic zone. The process is complete only when neritic carbonate produc-
tion has ceased and truly deep-water conditions have been established.
However, the onset of drowning expresses itself even within the euphoric
zone by a change to deeper-water communities in reefs and on the lagoonal
floors.
A modern example for incipient drowning of a large platform is the outer
Yucatan shelf in the Gulf of Mexico (Logan et al., 1969).
Modern examples of drowned reefs include the relict Holoeene barrier
reef off St. Croix in the Caribbean, (Adey et al., 1977), off eastern Florida
(Lighty, 1977b) and off the N. Bahamas (Hine and Neumann, 1977). The
St. Croix barrier consists of shallow-water Acroporapalmata reef capped by
deeper-water head corals, while the Florida reef is now an inactive shelf-

TABLE III

Types of response of carbonate platforms to sea-level rise, responses are defined by rela-
tio~hip of rate of rise of relative sea level versus growth potential of platform rim and
platform interior

Type A: Drowning:
Rise > rim, interior Complete failure of both rim and platform interior
to keep pace with the rising sea, so platform is
drowned

Type B: catch up--survival of rim and patches,"


Rise > rim > interior During start-up phase both rim and interior
fail to match rise (incipient drowning) while
quickly followed by platform top still resides in euphotic zone;
rim > rise > interior later the rim catches up with rise turning
platform interior into deep lagoon
later followed by that in turn acts as sediment trap
rise > rim, interior

Type C: Keep up--upbuitding and outbuilding:


Rim, interior > rise Growth potential of both rim and interior of plat-
form match or exceed rate of rise; no deep lagoons
are developed and platform maintains flat top within
few meters of sea level and tends to prograde basin-
ward
197

margin reef with a central zone of Acroporapalmata. Drowning of Holocene


reefs was probably brought about by a combination of rapid sea-level rise
and adverse water conditions during incipient flooding of the wide flat plat-
form tops (Adey et al., 1977; Lighty et al., 1978).
This Holocene rise, however, was not great enough, nor did it last long
enough, to establish pelagic conditions on the drowned reefs and platforms.
A more complete stage of drowning can be observed on slope terraces in
front of the present-day platform margin, such as the Pourtales Terrace east
of Florida (Gomberg, 1976, pp.120-130). This feature, currently in
175--300 m of water depth, reached into the photic zone during the Pleisto-
cene low stands when red algae grew on the upper part of the terrace. When-
ever the sea rose to interglacial high stands, as for instance during the
Holocene, algal growth ceased and pelagic carbonate deposition prevailed.
The drowning of the Miami Terrace (Mullins and Neumann, 1979) is even
more advanced. This terrace was part of a prograding platform margin until
early Miocene time, and became subaerially exposed during the late Miocene
drop in sea level (Peck et al., 1979). It was drowned during the subsequent
rise and has been dominated by the accumulation of phosphorites and pelagic
sediments ever since.
Drowned reefs and platforms in the geologic record often have a similar
appearance to reefs and platforms that were suffocated by clastic influx.
Schlager (1980) recently compiled examples of platforms where "death by
clastic pollution" can be ruled out because the termination of neritic car-
bonate deposition was followed by non-deposition or pelagic deposition.
Good examples of drowned reefs and platforms are listed in Table II, E.
Build-ups abandoned by the rise frequently are enveloped by a shale cap or
deep-water limestone.
Rises of relative sea level at rates of 103--104 Bubnoff units may be
required to drown healthy platforms (Schlager, 1979, and Table I). This is
several orders of magnitude faster than sea-level rises suggested by the second-
and third-order cycles of Vail et ai. (1977). The high rate of sea-level rise
required to drown a platform implies that these drowning pulses were
probably of very short duration. If the sea rose at a rate of 104 Bubnoff
units, some 104 years would suffice to increase water depth to 5 0 - 1 0 0 m
and thus transfer the platform below the euphotic zone, even if some of the
rise were compensated for by carbonate accumulation. In some cases, even
less time and subsidence is needed. For instance, Purser (1969) describes
cycles no thicker than 20 m, suggesting incipient drowning occurred below
this depth.
A sea-level pulse of 10,000 years may well be too short to be resolved by
Vail et al.'s (1977) stratigraphic method of sea-level reconstruction. Certain
mass extinctions of platforms may well be related to short-term sea-level events
even if there is no obvious correlation with Vail et ai.'s second- and third-
order cycles. A likely example of eustatic drowning is the Middle Cretaceous
(Arthur and Schlanger, 1979; Schlager, 1980).
198

Type B: survival of rim and patches (Figs.4, 5)

This type is a complex but common response that occupies an inter-


mediate position between complete failure and complete success. The rate
of rise is such that only the platform rim (normally a reef) and/or isolated
patch reefs on the platform interior keep pace while the remainder of the
platform is drowned, becoming a deep lagoon or shelf sea. This response
typically occurs when the rising sea reaches the platform tops after a period
of exposure. The pattern tends to develop in stages: during the "start-up"
phase the rate of rise exceeds both growth rate of rim and interior, and the
depositional setting shifts to deeper and more open-marine conditions, but
the sea floor remains in the euphoric zone. During the second or "catch-up"
phase the reef rim and newly established patch-reefs in the interior attain full
growth rate and build to sea level. A third phase may follow when the interior
lagoon fills up and a flat platform top is re-established. The end result of
phase three will then be identical with the "keep-up" response where
accumulation rates of rim and interior exceed the rate of rise throughout the
event. However, in many cases the lagoon does not fill up at all or fills up
after the raised rim and patches have existed for a long time, and for this
reason, "survival of rim and patches" is treated as a separate response.
Several modern platforms have reacted in this way to the Holocene rise. A
good example is the Queensland Shelf of Australia, where only the rim, i.e.,
the Great Barrier Reef and Faros in the lagoon survived the Holocene trans-
gression. Other examples are listed in Table II, G. Where examined in drill
holes, the internal structure of reefs in these areas typically reveals an initial
lag period followed by a shoaling-upward sequence of the catch-up phase.
Best documented examples of this reef structure are the algal-coral reefs of
St. Croix, in the Caribbean {Adey and Burke, 1976, p.98; Adey et al., 1977).
Initially outpaced by the rapidly rising sea, the reefs caught up when sea-level
rise slowed at 5000 years B.P. The reefs display a shoaling-upward succession
of coral communities, presently capped by intertidal algal ridges. Other
examples of reefs with lag and catch-up phase during the Holocene rise
include the Alacran reef at the rim of the Yucatan shelf (Macintyre et al.,
1977) and reefs in the Great Barrier Reef Complex {Davies and Marshall,
1979).
Ancient examples of large platforms with survival of rim and patches
include the Jurassic--Cretaceous continental shelf of eastern North America.
The Blake Nose, for instance, occupies the seaward margin of a large carbon-
ate platform that was drowned in Early Cretaceous (Barremian) time, while
the margin continued to grow until Late Cretaceous (probably Campanian}
time {Benson et al., 1979, p.107). Similar conditions may have prevailed
elsewhere along the margin and an elevated carbonate shelf edge seems to have
existed and dammed up clastics for considerable time after the continuous
Jurassic platform was drowned {e.g., profiles in Grow et al., 1979). The
Middle and Late Devonian of central Europe provide another example of a
continuous platform that was drowned and succeeded by shelf atolls lined
199

up along its former margin and scattered over the interior (Krebs, 1974,
p.164) as were the shelves on which the Devonian Swan Hills and Leduc
reefs of western Canada (Stoakes and Wendte, 1979} and the Devonian of
the Canning Basin of Western Australia (Playford, 1980). Other classic
examples are the Miocene build-ups of Indonesia (Vincelette and Soeparjadi,
1976). Similarly, the Late Triassic Dachstein platform of the eastern Alps
(Fischer, 1964; Zankl, 1971) was partly drowned and inundated by a trans-
gressive sea in such a way that the ocean-facing reef belt in the south survived
several million years longer than the remainder of the platform. There
again, incipient drowning of the platform interior stimulated growth of
patch reefs that first lagged behind the rising sea and later built to sea level
through a succession of skeletal sand bodies, mud mounds and finally coral--
algal frameworks (Schaeffer, 1979, p.22). Other ancient reefs displaying the
combination of lag and catch-up phase in response to relative rise of sea level
are numerous (Table II, H).

Keep-up type: flat-topped prograding platforms (Figs.6, 7)

In this type of response, growth potential of rim and interior matches or


exceeds the rate of rise. The platform bucket fills to sea level, and in most
cases the platform rim progrades seaward, building on excess sediment
dumped on the flanks. These rims may consist of reefs or stacked carbonate
sand shoals that record little or no apparent change in water depth during
deposition. Cementation of the rim is usually marine but occasional fresh-
water cements suggest that the sediments built to sea level and sometimes
contained a fresh-water lens within the exposed top of the rim. Examples
include the Permian Capitan Formation of west Texas (King, 1948; Newell
et al., 1953) and the Triassic of the southern Alps (Bosellini and Rossi,
1974). In some cases this rapidly prograding shelf margin is the source of
carbonate turbidites (Newell et al., 1953; Thomson and Thomasson, 1969;
Evans and Kendall, 1977}.
The depositional environment over the platform interior varies from
supratidal to just a few meters below low tide. During sea-level rises, shelf
width will usually increase and clastics will tend to be confined to the land-
ward side of the shelf by its width. Shelf sedimentation, particularly towards
its seaward margin, is usually represented by shoaling-upward carbonate
sequences. Occasionally during rises isolated depressions back from the shelf
margins become evaporative lagoons. Here net inflow causes the deposition
of varied evaporites and carbonates like the Cretaceous Ferry Lake anhydrite
of the Gulf Coast (McFarland, 1977) and some Mesozoic evaporites of
northern Africa and Europe {Van Houten, 1980). Individual shoaling cycles
tend to be extremely widespread and, where clastic supply is low, are fre-
quently terminated by supratidal evaporite sequences. On narrower shelves
with low clastic supply, carbonates may dominate the seaward margin of the
shelf while clastics cover most of the shelf. Where clastic supply is high and
delta migration takes place, carbonates and clastics interfinger rhythmically.
200

When carbonate sedimentation exceeds the rate of sea-level rise the carbon-
ates of the margin ingress over the abandoned delta lobes. This is extremely
common in the Pennsylvanian of eastern United States (Ferm and Horn,
1979), and is true of the Pennsylvanian reciprocal sedimentation described
by Van Siclen (1958) and Brown {1967) from Texas and the Pennsylvanian
of New Mexico described by Wilson (1967). In the Devonian of western
Canada clastics drive the basin margin seaward so that during each subsequent
sea-level rise, the carbonate shelves are initiated in a more seaward position
than the previous carbonate shelf (Stoakes and Wendte, 1979; Exploration
Staff, Chevron Standard Limited, 1979; Stoakes, 1981).
A carbonate shelf system can be expected to fill to the supratidal zone
when a relative sea-level rise slows, and the excess sediment causes the coast
to prograde seaward. The deposits are typically rhythmic or cyclic {Wilson,
1975, pp.281--309). Certain types of cycles, such as the shoaling-upward
cycles ranging from shallow marine to supratidal, may be caused by some
internal mechanism of feed-back, independent of an external dictating force.
Ginsburg (1971), for instance, proposed a purely depositional origin for
shoaling-upward cycles in platform carbonates based on two principles well
documented in the Holocene:
(1) after carbonates reach sea level, a lag time exists of several hundred to
thousands of years between the flooding of an area caused by a rise of rela-
tive sea level and the onset of rapid sedimentation, and
(2) though lime mud is the major sediment fraction, and is produced
nearly everywhere on the platform, it accumulates preferentially along pro-
tected coasts, forming seaward prograding wedges of shallow marine deposits
capped by tidal deposits.
Ginsburg's prograding mud wedges would explain shoaling-upward cycles
in platform carbonates independent of any high-frequency fluctuations of
either sea level or rates of subsidence. Other cycles such as the Lofer cycles
described by Fischer (1964) include terrestrial episodes that require an
outside dictating force. These are best explained by rapid but small oscilla-
tions of sea level. Fischer (1975) suggests a correlation with the earth's
orbital parameters ("Milankovich Cycles").
Fla~topped and thick shallow-water platforms are common in nearly all
periods of the Phanerozoic and the late Precambrian (Table II, I). Neritic
carbonate deposition is rather stable once it is initiated on flat-topped
carbonate platforms. In the Bahamas (Late Jurassic to Recent) and in the
southern Appenines (Middle-Triassic to Paleocene) flat-topped platforms
were maintained for nearly 150 Ma (Paulus, 1972; Meyerhoff and Hatten,
1974; D'Argenio et al., 1975). The only interruptions in these sequences
were caused by falls of relative sea level; all variations in the rate of rise of
relative sea level were buffered within the platform system by varying the
rate of upbuilding and outbuilding. Examples of modern platforms maintain-
ing a flat top at sea level are difficult to demonstrate because Holocene sea
level has not risen far enough above the Late Pleistocene contour to prove
this point. Platforms flooded early during the Holocene, such as the Yucatan
201

shelf or the Queensland shelf, were not able to build up with the rising sea
and responded by being drowned or having the rim and some reef patches
survive (Table II, J). Some of these Holocene reefs were able to match a
relative sea-level rise in the order of 2 • 103 to 9 • 103 Bubnoff units (mm/
1000 yr.) by upward growth. Ancient examples of these build-ups can be
seen in Table II, K).

Rate o f sea-level rise vs. carbonate response

The responses type A through C discussed above are defined qualitatively


and a priori do not provide a key to the absolute rate of sea-level rise that
caused them. We consider our classification no more than an intermediate
step towards the ultimate goal of predictive models which will allow the
stratigrapher, once having considered the rate of relative rise of sea level and
other environmental parameters, to predict the response of carbonate plat-
forms. At present, the relationship between rate of sea-level rise and a corre-
sponding carbonate response is poorly defined because of lack of quantitative
data and because the growth potential of platforms has probably varied
considerably through space and time.
The life span of carbonate platforms and reefs is commonly on the order
of five to a few tens of millions of years and thus in the same range as the
third-order sea-level cycles defined by Vail et al. (1977). Rates of sea-level
rises within these cycles are known only to the nearest order of magnitude
because of the uncertainty of the absolute amplitude in sea-level excursions
(see Vail et al., 1977 vs. Hancock and Kauffman, 1979). Using Vail and
Hardenbol's (1979) sea-level curve for the Tertiary we estimate the fast rises
within the third-order cycles to be on the order of 25--200 Bubnoffs.
Similar rates ( 1 0 - 9 0 Bubnoffs) have been calculated by Hancock and
Kauffman (1979) for the transgressive pulses in the Cretaceous which are
comparable in length to Vail's third-order cycles (Table I). The growth
potential of carbonate reefs and platforms, on the ceher hand, seems to be at
least one order of magnitude higher (Wilson, 1975, p.15; Schlager, 1979).
Schlager {1980) estimates the growth potential of modem platforms to be
near 1000 Bubnoffs (Table I). This estimate is based on the following
observations: the rise of 8000-10,000 Bubnoffs during the Early Holocene
appears to have been too fast for most reefs and platforms whereas most of
them recovered during the later Holocene, when sea level rose at rates of
5 0 0 - 2 0 0 0 Bubnoffs. Many ancient platforms seem to have had similar
potential. This is suggested by numerous examples of platforms that pro-
graded while their flat tops kept pace with relative sea level rising at rates of
tens to hundreds of Bubnoffs.
If these estimates are correct, then the sea-level rises depicted by the third-
order cycles of Vail et al., (1977) are too slow to explain types A and B
responses on carbonate platforms. Rather, these responses, which both
include drowning, may be caused by environmental stress accompanying a
rise of sea level, or by a pulse in subsidence, or by fast, short-term eustatic
202

fluctuations of sea level superimposed on third-order cycles. A strong argu-


ment that the responses are often dictated by eustacy, is their non-random
distribution through time, on a global basis, with certain types of responses
clustered at specific time intervals but rare at others: For instance, global
mass-extinctions of platforms (type-A response) are associated with mid-
Cretaceous transgressions, suggesting eustatic pulses of sea level whose rate
and amplitude was sufficient to completely drown reefs and platforms
(Schlager, 1980). Similarly, fast pulses but with smaller amplitude may have
caused the widespread examples of type-B response in the Middle and Late
Devonian, when areally widespread carbonate platforms were flooded several
times and succeeded by barrier and patch reefs that stood high above the
surrounding deep lagoon, like the former platform tops of Central Europe,
(Krebs, 1974) and the Alberta basin (Stoakes and Wendte, 1979). Pulses of
fast rate but small amplitude are suggested by the succession of hardgrounds
(incipient drowning) followed by shoaling.upward sequences (catch-up
phase}, which is common in the Middle and Late Jurassic {Purser, 1969;
Murris, 1980).
Type-C response where the depositional surface remains at sea level allows
direct determination of the rate of relative rise of sea level that caused this
particular response. Rates of relative rise during stable sea level or platform
progradation are found to vary from a few tens to several hundreds of
Bubnoffs (Schlager, 1980).
Shoaling-upward cycles of carbonate are common in the centres of more
stable shelves. The shelf interior appears to tend to have fewer complete
shoaling-upward cycles since tongues of water associated with many indivi-
dual sea-level rises are unable to extend all the way across the shelf interior.
Complementing this, hiatuses are common to the shelf interior (Murris,
1980). In contrast, the shelf margin and basin centres may lack shallow-
water sediments because the subsidence is rapid and so evidence of the
progradational cycles can be obscured. Thus, where subsidence is extremely
fast, as at the basin margin, particularly immediately after the break-up of a
continent, cycles may be hidden by the effects of rapid subsidence. Similarly,
basin interiors may subside so rapidly that tidal flats are prevented from
developing. Thus, instead of the asymmetric shoaling-upward cycles common
to stable shelves, symmetrical shoaling and deepening cycles can occur, as
they do in the Cretaceous basin of the western interior of the U.S.A.
(Kauffman, 1977). However, toward shelf centres as carbonates encroach on
the continental interior the cyclic nature of the carbonates becomes more
and more common. It should be realized that the supratidal evaporites
associated with these shoaling-upward carbonates are formed only during
stable sea level or sea-level rises and should not mistakenly be interpreted
as forming during sea-level falls.
It is our contention, the upper parts of many of Vail et al.'s {1977) onlap
cycles may be dominated by a series of shoaling-upward carbonate sequences.
For example, the Fredricksburg of Central Texas is capped by fourteen
shoaling-upward cycles (Mueller, 1975}. Similarly, the shoaling-upward
203

sequence observed in the Oxfordian Smackover Formation of the U.S. Gulf


Coast (Croft et al., 1980) or its North African equivalent in Tunisia match
the top of a sea-level rise as do many of the shoaling-upward carbonates of
the Middle East (Murris, 1980). These cycles tend to become more and more
restricted upward. The effect ends when sea level reaches a standstill and
then falls.
The type of shoaling-upward cycles of the Fredricksburg and the Jurassic
of the Middle East clearly differ from the very thick cyclic platform carbon-
ates like that of the Triassic Dachstein Limestone (Fischer, 1975), the
Dolomia Principale (Bosellini, 1965), and the Permian of the Guadelupe
Mountains (Newell et al., 1953). These latter cycles are of still shorter dura-
tion, e.g. 50,000 years for the Dachstein cycles {Fischer, 1975}. Most of the
cycles begin with a karst horizon enveloping lower subtidal deposits, which
implies that the sea-level falls were on the order of 102--103 Bubnoffs and
outpace the combined effect of subsidence and long-term sea-level movement
{Table I). We believe, with Fischer (1975) that these cycles are the result of
the waxing and waning of ice sheets responding to the variations of the
earth's orbital parameters.
The early cement paragenesis associated with the shoaling-upward carbon-
ates is dominantly fresh-water, though schizohaline and marine cements are
not uncommon. The extent of the cementation and diagenesis is probably
controlled by the length of subaerial exposure of the prograding carbonate
at sea level.

RESPONSE O F C A R B O N A T E S T O D R O P S IN SEA L E V E L

A small eustatic drop in sea level will expose shallow, flat carbonate
shelves, no matter their width, producing a widespread unconformity (Fig.l).
This is because, no matter the tectonic setting, carbonate-shelf sedimentation
tends to build to sea level. Should the shelves have undergone tectonic
deformation as they formed, some sea-level drops can cause erosion to cut
down into the tectonically disturbed sediments. Thus a sea-level drop is like
a camera shutter which freezes parts of the continuum of tectonic change and
carbonate sedimentation and provides a relative-time scale for dating both
widespread synchronous unconformities like those recognized by Suess
(1906); Stille (1924); Sloss (1963); Sleep (1976) and Vail et al. (1977) and
events less commonly identified with sea-level change like the deposition of
shoaling-upward carbonate cycle.
While carbonate platforms and reefs usu'ally keep pace with all but the
fastest rises in relative sea level, they are very poorly equipped to shift the
loci of carbonate production and deposition when there is a relative drop in
sea level. The flanks of platforms are usually so steep that reefs or other car-
bonate facies belts, are unable to gradually migrate down slopes following
the retreating sea. What little sediment is deposited during this retreat, is
quickly removed by beach erosion and subsequent terrestrial weathering.
Consequently, the most common record of sea-level drops on carbonate plat-
204

forms is a subaerial hiatus, associated with karst development and cliff


erosion. Fresh-water cements like those described by Meyers (1974) from
Mississippian limestones of New Mexico are common to sea-level falls.
During standstills in the retreat of the sea, the connections of the basin to
the open sea may be closed or nearly closed by fringing reefs or structural
highs. This tendency towards isolation of the basin and the lack of clastic
influx makes carbonate basins particularly prone to evaporite deposition
when sea level drops. These basinal evaporites tend to form where carbonate
deposition has previously occurred in confined basins set well within the
margin of the continent. As Maiklem (1971) proposed for the Elk Point
Basin of Canada, the great thickness of evaporites suggests this basin, and
others like it, were still in contact with oceanic water while much of the
evaporite formed. The mechanism of evaporite drawdown (Maiklem, 1971)
allowed a net inflow of marine water into the basins. Table II, L lists basins
where cycles of basinal evaporites and shallow-water carbonates occur and
were produced by variations in sea level. The evaporites are associated with
the sea-level lows and the carbonates with shelves during the sea-level highs.
A sea-level drop usually terminates carbonate deposition at a carbonate
margin, and the exposed carbonate of the shelf is cemented, so little detritus
is shed, and, furthermore, the cemented carbonate partially inhibits the ero-
sion of the clastics trapped on the shelf.
The evaporites of the Paradox Basin, the Delaware Basin, the Michigan
Basin and Zechstein, etc., are largely devoid of clastics during the evaporative
phase, presumably because the rate of evaporite production masks the
clastic influx. However, some basins at sea-level lows are dominated by shelf-
derived clastics because the basins have greater access to the open sea and so
are not evaporative. The Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico (Kendall,
1969) shows this clastic phase followed by a later evaporative one.
Occasionally, a drop in sea level may be accompanied by downslope
migration of the carbonate-producing area. For instance, in the Midland
Basin during a sea-level low in the early Guadalupian, the previously deep
Midland Basin sea-floor formed a shallow-water depositional setting in which
the San Andres oolites were formed (Todd, 1976). Similarly, Esteban and
Giner (1977) record the progradation of Miocene reefs downslope as sea-
level drops in the Messinian of the Mediterranian.

CONCLUSIONS

(1) In carbonate platforms, relative rises of sea level may produce three
different responses: (A) completely drowned platforms, submerged below
the euphoric zone and capped by hardgrounds or condensed deep-water
deposits; (B) platforms where rim and reef patches of the interior survive
and match sea level while the remainder of the platform is drowned; (C)
platforms where growth of both rim and interior match sea-level rise and a
flat surface is maintained at sea level.
(2) Response to rapid relative rise of sea level after exposure often pro-
205

ceeds in three phases: (A) start-up phase when carbonate accumulation lags
behind the rising sea; (B) catch-up phase when accumulation exceeds the rate
of sea-level rise and the reef or platform builds to sea level; (C) keep-up phase
when accumulation closely matches the rate of rise and the top of the reef or
platform remains at, or very close to, sea level.
The stratigraphic record of these three phases of growth is a shoaling-
upward sequence overlying a hardground or lag deposit.
(3) Vertical growth potential of reefs and platforms is one to two orders
of magnitude higher than rate of eustatic sea-level rise in most of Vail et al.'s
(1977) second- and third-order cycles. The type of carbonate response seems
to be mainly controlled by the presence or absence of rapid sea-level pulse
superimposed on these cycles and by tectonic subsidence.
(4) Falls of relative sea level are associated with karst and soil development
on the platform and the deposition of subtidal evaporites in adjacent semi-
enclosed basins and clastics in more open-marine basins.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

This paper was presented at the 26th International Geological Congress in


Paris (Kendall and Schlager, 1980) and is dedicated to our friend and colleague
Riccardo Assereto. The authors would like to express their appreciation of
Jack Wendte, with whom they had many conversations and whose ideas they
have drawn freely on. Also we thank Stan Frost, Bob Ginsburg, Mitch Harris,
Ian Lerche, Robin Lighty, Macomb Jervey, Ken Mesolella, Conrad Neumann,
Nahum Schneiderman, Frank Stoakes and Peter Vail for their valuable sugges-
tions and editorial help. Finally, we would extend gratitude to Gulf Research
for encouraging the publication of this paper.

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