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Working Hypotheses for the Origin of the Wonoka Canyons (Neoproterozoic), South Australia

Christie-Blick, Nicholas; Von der Borch, C. C.; DiBona, P. A.

Recent attempts to apply concepts of sequence stratigraphy to the Neoproterozoic Wilpena Group of the Adelaide "geosyncline" in South Australia have provided an important new method for improving the resolution of intrabasinal correlation in sparsely fossiliferous and unfossiliferous strata. Eight regional unconformities are now recognized within or bounding the Wilpena Group. The most prominent of these, at or near the base of the Wonoka Formation, is expressed by a series of spectacular incised valleys or canyons, some more than 1 km deep and dated as approx 630 to 580 Ma. The canyons developed following an interval of continental rifting that took place between about 800 and 700 Ma and prior to a second phase of accelerated subsidence of uncertain origin in Early Cambrian time (after about 560 Ma). Subsidence during the intervening span of more than 140 my was in part of thermal origin and in part due to the withdrawal of buried salt at depth, but it may also have involved additional extension for which little direct structural evidence is preserved. The canyons are incised into a succession of shallow marine mainly terrigenous strata that accumulated in a broad north- and east-facing ramp. They are exposed in two distinct belts within and east of the Flinders Ranges, in an area that is about 275 km in a north-south direction and about 175 km east-west. The canyons are inferred to have been filled by shallow marine sediments primarily on the basis of sedimentary structures interpreted as combined flow and oscillation ripples and hummocky cross-stratification. If this is correct, development of the canyons was related to regional lowering of depositional base level by more than 1 km. Recent work also indicates a second phase of valley incision at an unconformity immediately above the main canyons and involving a relative sealevel fall of at least 200 m.
Two working hypotheses are advanced to account for the origin of the Wonoka canyons: regional uplift and an evaporitic lowering of sealevel in an isolated basin, analogous to the Messinian event in the Mediterranean. Any regional uplift would likely have been of tectonic origin. Diapirism associated with buried salt cannot account for the wide distribution of erosion or for pronounced uplift in an extensional setting lacking evidence for basin inversion or compressional deformation coeval with sedimentation. One possible mechanism for tectonic uplift involves inhomogeneous extension of the lithosphere, with the amount of extension balanced at all levels on a regional scale possibly by means of detachment faults. Possible difficulties with this hypothesis are the requirement of relatively uniform uplift over distances of hundreds of kilometers and the fact that repeated large-scale lowering of base level implies oscillatory vertical motions that are not readily explained. An evaporitic drawdown accounts for the wide distribution and scale of the canyons and for repeated lowering of base level. Possible difficulties in this case are the presence within the canyon fill of facies that have been interpreted to be of tidal origin; the fact that unlike the Messinian crisis in the Mediterranean, the Wonoka canyons do not appear to have been drowned rapidly; and the lack of direct evidence for evaporities of appropriate age. Neither hypothesis accounts for the apparent absence of appreciable meteoric diagenesis in areas far removea from sites of canyon incision.
Two additional conclusions are as follows. First, neither of the hypotheses precludes eustasy as an important control on sedimentation. Sequence stratigraphic comparisons with other basins of the same general age should focus primarily on the time of formation of sequence boundaries not on the geometry of the boundaries or the facies involved. Second, a drawdown in excess of 1 km implies that the adjacent basin was originally at least this deep and hence likely underlain at least locally by highly attenuated continental crust or oceanic crust. Either hypothesis therefore has important implications for the tectonic development of the Adelaide geosyncline.

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American Journal of Science

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Part of a Special Issue: Proterozoic Evolution and Environments