Carbonate platforms

A number of different morphologies of carbonate platform are recognised, the most widely documented being carbonate ramps, which are gently sloping platforms, and rimmed shelves, which are flat-topped platforms bordered by a rim formed by a reef or carbonate sand shoal. The tectonic setting influences the characteristics of carbonate platforms, with the largest occurring on passive continental margins while smaller platforms form on localised submarine highs such as fault blocks in extensional settings and on salt diapirs. The different types of carbonate platform can sometimes occur associated with each other: an isolated platform may be a carbonate ramp on one side and a rimmed shelf on the other and one form may evolve into another, for example, a ramp may evolve into a rimmed shelf as a fringing reef develops.

Carbonate ramps

The bathymetric profile of a carbonate ramp and the physical processes within the sea and on the sea floor are very similar to an open shelf with clastic deposition. The term ‘ramp’ may give the impression of a significant slope but in fact the slope is a gentle one of less than a degree in most instances, in contrast to slope environments associated with rimmed shelves, which are much steeper. Modern ramps are in places where reefs are not developed, such as regions of cooler waters, increased salinity or relatively high input of terrigenous clastic material. However, in the past carbonate ramps formed in a wider range of climatic and environmental settings, especially during periods when reef development was not so widespread. In macro- to mesotidal regimes tidal currents distribute carbonate sediment and strongly influence the coastal facies. Wave and storm processes are dominant in microtidal shelves and seas. The effects of tides, waves and storms are all depth-dependent and ramps can be divided into three depth-related zones: inner, mid- and outer ramp.

Distribution of facies on a carbonate ramp

The inner ramp is the shallow zone that is most affected by wave and/or tidal action. Coastal facies along tidally influenced shorelines are characterised by deposition of coarser material in channels and carbonate muds on tidal flats. Wave-dominated shorelines may have a beach ridge that confines a lagoon or a linear strand plain attached to the coastal plain. Ramps with mesotidal regimes will show a mixture of beach barrier, tidal inlet, lagoon and tidal-flat deposition. Agitation of carbonate sediment in shallow nearshore water results in a shoreface facies of carbonate sand bodies. Skeletal debris and ooids formed in the shallow water form bioclastic and oolitic carbonate sand shoals. Benthic foraminifers are the principal components of some Tertiary carbonate ramp successions. The mid-ramp area lies below fair-weather wave base and the extent of reworking by shallow-marine processes is reduced. Storm processes transport bioclastic debris out on to the shelf to form deposits of wackestone and packstone, which may include hummocky and swaley cross-stratification. In deeper water below storm wave base the outer ramp deposits are principally redeposited carbonate mudstone and wackestone, often with the characteristics of turbidites. Redeposition of carbonate sediments is common in situations where the outer edge of the ramp merges into a steeper slope at a continental margin as a distally steepened ramp. Homoclinal ramps have a consistent gentle slope on which little reworking of material by mass-flow processes occurs. In contrast to rimmed shelves reefal build-ups are relatively rare in ramp settings. Isolated patch reefs may occur in the more proximal parts of a ramp and mud mounds are known from Palaeozoic ramp environments.

Carbonate ramp succession

A succession built up by the progradation of a carbonate ramp is characterised by an overall coarseningup from carbonate mudstone and wackestone deposited in the outer ramp environment to wackestones and packstones of the mid-ramp to packstone and grainstone beds of the inner ramp. The degree of sorting typically increases upwards, reflecting the higher energy conditions in shallow water. Inner ramp carbonate sand deposits are typically oolitic and bioclastic grainstone beds that exhibit decimetre to metre-scale cross-bedding and horizontal stratification. The top of the succession may include fine-grained tidal flat and lagoonal sediments. Ooids, broken shelly debris, algal material and benthic foraminifers may all be components of ramp carbonates. Locally mud mounds and patch reefs may occur within carbonate ramp successions. On shelves and epicontinental seas where there are fluctuations in relative sea level, cycles of carbonate deposits are formed on a carbonate ramp. A sea-level rise results in a shallowing-up cycle a few metres to tens of metres thick that coarsens up from beds of mudstone and wackestone to grainstone and packstone. A fall in sea level may expose the inner ramp deposits to dissolution in karstic subaerial weathering.

Non-rimmed carbonate shelves

Non-rimmed carbonate shelves are flat-topped shallow marine platforms that are more-or-less horizontal, in contrast to the gently dipping morphology of a carbonate ramp. They lack any barrier at the outer margin of the shelf (rimmed shelves) and as a consequence the shallow waters are exposed to the full force of oceanic conditions. These are therefore high-energy environments where carbonate sediments are repeatedly reworked by wave action in the inner part of the shelf and where redeposition by storms affects the outer shelf area. They therefore resemble storm-dominated clastic shelves, but the deposits are predominantly carbonate grains. Extensive reworking in shallow waters may result in grainstones and packstones, whereas wackestones and mudstones are likely to occur in the outer shelf area. Coastal facies are typically low energy tidal-flat deposits but a beach barrier may develop if the wave energy is high enough.

Rimmed carbonate shelves

A rimmed carbonate shelf is a flat-topped platform that has a rim of reefs or carbonate sand shoals along the seaward margin. The reef or shoal forms a barrier that absorbs most of the wave energy from the open ocean. Modern examples of rimmed shelves all have a coral reef barrier because of the relative abundance of hermatypic scleractinian corals in the modern oceans. Landward of the barrier lies a low-energy shallow platform or shelf lagoon that is sheltered from the open ocean and may be from a few kilometres to hundreds of kilometres wide and vary in depth from a few metres to several tens of metres deep.

Distribution of facies on a carbonate rimmed shelf

In cases where the barrier is a reef, the edge of the shelf is made up of an association of reef-core, fore-reef and back-reef facies: the reef itself forms a bioherm hundreds of metres to kilometres across. Sand shoals may be of similar extent where they form the shelf-rim barrier. Progradation of a barrier results in steepening of the slope at the edge of the shelf and the slope facies are dominated by redeposited material in the form of debris flows in the upper part and turbidites on the lower part of the slope. These pass laterally into pelagic deposits of the deep basin. The back-reef facies near to the barrier may experience relatively high wave energy resulting in the formation of grainstones of carbonate sand and skeletal debris reworked from the reef. Further inshore the energy is lower and the deposits are mainly wackestones and mudstones. However, ooidal and peloidal complexes may also occur in the shelf lagoon and patch reefs can also form. In inner shelf areas with very limited circulation and under conditions of raised salinities the fauna tends to be very restricted. In arid regions evaporite precipitation may become prominent in the shelf lagoon if the barrier provides an effective restriction to the circulation of seawater.

Rimmed carbonate shelf successions

As deposition occurs on the rimmed shelf under conditions of static or slowly rising sea level the whole complex progrades. The reef core builds out over the fore reef and back-reef to lagoon facies overlie the reef bioherm. Distally the slope deposits of the fore reef prograde over deeper water facies comprising pelagic carbonate mud and calcareous turbidite deposits. The steep depositional slope of the fore reef creates a clinoform bedding geometry, which may be seen in exposures of rimmed shelf carbonates. This distinctive geometry can also be recognised in seismic reflection profiles of the subsurface. The association of reef-core boundstone facies overlying forereef rudstone deposits and overlain by finer grained sediments of the shelf lagoon forms a distinctive facies association. Under conditions of sea-level fall the reef core may be subaerially exposed and develop karstic weathering, and a distinctive surface showing evidence of erosion and solution may be preserved in the stratigraphic succession if subsequent sea-level rise results in further carbonate deposition on top.

Epicontinental (epeiric) platforms

There are no modern examples of large epicontinental seas dominated by carbonate sedimentation but facies distributions in limestones in the stratigraphic record indicate that such conditions have existed in the past, particularly during the Jurassic and Cretaceous when large parts of the continents were covered by shallow seas. The water depth across an epicontinental platform would be expected to be variable up to a few tens to hundreds of metres. Both tidal and storm processes may be expected, with the latter more significant on platforms with small tidal ranges. Currents in broad shallow seas would build shoals of oolitic and bioclastic debris that may become stabilised into low-relief islands. Deposition in intertidal zones around these islands and the margins of the sea would result in the progradation of tidal flats. The facies successions developed in these settings would therefore be cycles displaying a shallowing-up trend, which may be traceable over large areas of the platform.

Carbonate banks and atolls

Isolated platforms in areas of shallow sea surrounded on all sides by deeper water are commonly sites of carbonate sedimentation because there is no source of terrigenous detritus. They are found in a number of different settings ranging from small atolls above extinct volcanoes to horst blocks in extensional basins and within larger areas of shallow seas. All sides are exposed to open seas and the distribution of facies on an isolated platform is controlled by the direction of the prevailing wind. The characteristics of the deposits resemble those of a rimmed shelf and result in similar facies associations. The best developed marginal reef facies occurs on the windward side of the platform, which experiences the highest energy waves. Carbonate sand bodies may also form part of the rim of the platform. The platform interior is a region of low energy where islands of carbonate sand may develop and deposition occurs on tidal flats.


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