Monday, May 3, 2021

Cretaceous Cauvery Basin Stratigraphy

In the second year of my bachelor's degree course, a few of us friends had gone fossil hunting near the town of Ariyalur in Tamil Nadu. Ariyalur sits on Cretaceous age sediments deposited in a basin that formed as India broke away from Antarctica and Australia. The basin got filled slowly over time, by sediments brought in by rivers, as well as in the marine realm, as the sea episodically kept encroaching on to the continent interior. 

Before leaving for the trip we had approached Dr. V.D.Borkar, a research scientist with the Agarkar Research Institute in Pune, to help us plan the fossil collection. He very generously lent us maps and gave us a detailed idea of the villages to travel to and nearby field locations. 

All in all it was a fun field trip. We roamed the countryside around Ariyalur and collected plenty of fossils. In our collection were plant impressions on clay, ammonoids, belemnites, echinoids, coral fragments, and a variety of bivalves. The non geology highlight was the absolutely delicious vegetarian thali meal served in the canteen next to the town bus station! We used to gorge on it everyday, twice a day.

At that time I didn't have a good understanding of stratigraphy and even sedimentary geology. As it happened I did not grasp the broader implications of the distribution of particular fossils and the arrangement of strata that I was observing in the field. 

Its never too late to update yourself! The past month I have been reading three papers on the Cretaceous outcrops around Ariyalur which focus on basin development and stratigraphic evolution. In simpler language, stratigraphic evolution means the patterns by which basins fill up. A closer look reveals that basins are not made up of uniform continuous layers (layer cake stratigraphy) of one sediment type succeeding another, but rather there is lateral interfingering of different types of sediment, controlled by sediment distribution patterns, water energy, and basin topography.  

There are exogenous influences too. A long term drop in sea level will result in a particular arrangement of strata known as 'progradation', formed for example when deltas build out in to the sea. This may be followed by a long term sea level rise forming an overlay of a different sedimentary pattern, called  'retrogradation'. In this case as the sea encroaches on land, coarser sediments that are deposited closer to the shore get buried under deeper water fine grained sediments  A sedimentary section from base to the top (older to younger) reveals in its sediment characteristics these changing environmental conditions.

Documenting these patterns in not as esoteric an exercise as it may seem to some. Such analysis is very keenly taken up during petroleum exploration.  One may find during outcrop mapping that coarse sand deposits (potential petroleum reservoirs) occur at repeated intervals and are juxtaposed against finer organic rich mud rocks (potential hydrocarbon source rocks). This then may become a guide for optimizing detailed exploration strategy in areas of the basin where strata are buried and can't be observed directly. Just such a situation occurs in the Cretaceous Cauvery Basin. The sediments around Ariyalur is one of the main accessible outcrops. But further to the east, these sedimentary layers continue under the sea bed of the Bay of Bengal. A well documented and well understood outcrop provides an analogue for the unseen portions of the basin.

These three papers clarified to me much of the Cretaceous stratigraphy that I had failed to understand in my college days.

Here are the links:

1) Cretaceous tectonostratigraphy and the development of the Cauvery Basin, southeast India: Matthew P. Watkinson, Malcolm B. Hart and Archana Joshi

A broad study of basin formation by continental rifting and the resulting patterns of basin infilling interpreted in the context of tectonic events, major sea level fluctuation and depositional episodes.

2) Sea level changes in the upper Aptian-lower/middle(?) Turonian sequence of Cauvery Basin, India  An ichnological perspective: Amruta R. Paranjape, Kantimati G. Kulkarni, Anand S. Kale.

Ichnology is the study of trace fossils. These are tracks, trails and burrows made by the movement of  creatures living on the basin floor. Traces differ depending upon the nature of sediment substrate and environmental conditions and can be used along with other sedimentological and fossil data to interpret patterns of sea level change.,

3) Siliciclastic-carbonate mixing modes in the river-mouth bar palaeogeography of the Upper Cretaceous Garudamangalam Sandstone (Ariyalur, India): Subir Sarkar, Nivedita Chakraborty, Anudeb Mandal, Santanu Banerjee, Pradip K. Bose.

The Garudamangalam Sandstone formed during a sea level highstand i.e. at the peak of a sea level change cycle, when the rate of sea level rise finally slows down and stops. Rivers bringing in sediment from the east began building a delta. The exposed Garudamangalam Sandstone is part of this delta complex. This is a very nice analysis of sedimentary processes and products. The various subenvironments in this delta complex are identified and the chemical changes in the sediment after their deposition are documented using various techniques like chemical staining and cathodoluminescence. I really enjoyed reading this one!

On a personal note, the Covid catastrophe unfolding in India is making reading and writing difficult. However, I did find that a few hours of geology time that I am managing to hold on to brings me some comfort. 

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