How are sedimentary basins formed?

Sedimentary basin: A low area in the Earth’s crust, of tectonic origin, in which sediments accumulate. Sedimentary basins range in size from as small as hundreds of meters to large parts of ocean basins. The essential element of the concept is tectonic creation of relief, to provide both a source of sediment and a relatively low place for the deposition of that sediment. Tectonics is the most important control on sedimentation; climate is a rather distant second. The important effects of tectonics on sedimentation, direct or indirect, include the following:
  •  nature of sediment
  • rate of sediment supply 
  • rate of deposition 
  • depositional environment 
  • nature of source rocks 
  • nature of vertical succession

The only basins that are preserved in their entirety are those that lie entirely in the subsurface! Basins exposed at the surface are undergoing destruction and loss of record by erosion. So there’s an ironic trade-off between having more complete preservation in the subsurface but less satisfactory observations. How do you gather data on sedimentary basins?.

Master cross sections: With the present land surface as the most natural datum, construct several detailed physical cross sections through the basin to show its geometry and sediment fill.

Stratigraphic sections: Construct a graph, with time along the vertical axis, showing the time correlations of all the major rock units along some generalized traverse across the basin. Such a section includes hiatuses, during which there was non deposition or erosion.

Isopach maps: With some distinctive stratigraphic horizon near the top of the section as datum, draw a contour map showing isopachs (isopachs are loci of equal total sediment thickness) in the basin.

Lithofacies maps: For one or a series of times, draw a map showing distribution of sediment types being deposited at that time.

Ratio maps: Compute things like sand/shale ratio, integrated over the entire section or restricted to some time interval, and plot a contour map of the values.

Paleocurrent maps: For one or a series of times, draw a map showing the direction of paleo-currents in the basin at that time.

Grain-size maps: For the entire basin fill, averaged vertically, or for some stratigraphic interval or time interval, draw a map that shows the areal distribution of sediment grain size. This is especially useful for conglomeratic basins.

In one sense, the origin of sedimentary basins boils down to the question of how relief on the Earth is created. Basically, there are only a few ways, described in the following sections.


On a small scale, hundreds to thousands of meters laterally, fault movements can create relief of hundreds to thousands of meters, resulting in small but often deep basins (some of these are called intermontane basins). Along strike-slip faults. can produce small pull-apart basins; more on them later. Relief of this kind is on such a small scale that it tends not to be isostatically compensated. It’s like setting a block of granite out on your driveway; the flexural rigidity of your driveway is great enough compared with the imposed load that the granite block is prevented from finding its buoyant equilibrium position.


Basin relief can be created mechanically on a regional scale in two very important ways: thermally or flexurally, or by a combination of those two effects). Each of these is discussed briefly below. Keep in mind that basins can also be made just by making mountain ranges, on land or in the ocean, by volcanism. 


If the lithosphere is heated from below, it expands slightly and thus becomes less dense. This less dense lithosphere adjusts isostatically to float higher in the asthenosphere, producing what we see at the Earth’s surface as crustal uplift. If the lithosphere cools back to its original temperature, there’s isostatic subsidence back to the original level.

 But suppose that some erosion took place while the crust was elevated. The crust is thinned where the erosion took place (and thickened somewhere else, where there was deposition; that might be far away, at the mouth of some long river system), so when the crust cools again it subsides to a position lower than where it started, thus creating a basin available for filling by sediments.

 But the magnitude of crustal lowering by this mechanism is less than is often observed in basins thought to be created thermally. It has therefore been proposed, and widely accepted, that in many cases extensional thinning of the lithosphere accompanies the heating. Then, upon re-cooling, the elevation of the top of the lithosphere is less than before the heating and extension. This kind of subsidence has been invoked to explain many sedimentary basins.        



Another important way to make basins is to park a large load on some area of the lithosphere. The new load causes that lithosphere to subside by isostatic adjustment. But because the lithosphere has considerable flexural rigidity, adjacent lithosphere is bowed down also. The region between the high-standing load and the lithosphere in the far field (in the parlance of geophysics, that just means far away!) is thus depressed to form a basin. This model has been very successful in accounting for the features of foreland basins, which are formed ahead of large thrust sheets that move out from orogenic areas onto previously undeformed cratonal lithosphere.

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