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Onlap, Offlap, and the Origin of Unconformity-Bounded Depositional Sequences

Christie-Blick, Nicholas

Unconformity-bounded depositional sequences represent the fundamental building blocks of sedimentary successions. They are typically characterized by onlap at the base and by offlap at the top, and they tend to be markedly asymmetrical, with onlap accounting for a larger part of any cycle of sedimentation than offlap. Offlap cannot be attributed solely to erosional truncation, but instead implies that sequence boundaries develop over a finite interval of time. Depositional sequences are commonly associated with a cyclic arrangement of facies, but transgressive-regressive cycles are out of phase with respect to sequence boundaries, which in down-dip locations are both overlain and underlain by progradational deposits, and hence form during times of regression of the shoreline.
These observations are used to develop some ideas about the origin of unconformity-bounded sequences, with reference to the inter-related roles of changes in depositional base level and sediment supply. In particular, it is shown than onlap and offlap are due to lateral migration of a “line of critical bypassing”, defined so as to incorporate the effects of sediment loading and compaction as well as the rate of change of elevation with respect to sea level. Downward shifts in onlap may be achieved by either an increase in the rate of eustatic fall or a decrease in the rate of tectonic subsidence, and it is premature to assume that eustatic and tectonic controls on sea level may be distinguished solely on the basis of the frequency of depositional cyclicity. Small shifts in the position of onlap can also be produced by changes in sediment supply, and more attention needs to be paid to the influence of sediment supply in the development of minor boundaries. Unconformities related to eustatic fluctuations are thought to correspond approximately to times of relatively rapid sea-level fall (inflection points), but questions remain about the existence of possible leads and lags of up to View the MathML source cycle, and hence about the degree to which sequence boundaries of eustatic origin may vary in age both within a given basin and from one basin to another.


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