Precambrian clastic sedimentation systems

P. G. Eriksson*, K. C. Condie, H. Tirsgaard, W. U. Mueller, W. Altermann, A. D. Miall, L. B. Aspler, O. Catuneanu, J. R. Chiarenzelli

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

242 Citations (Scopus)


The unique and evolving nature of the Precambrian geological environment in many ways was responsible for significant differences between Precambrian clastic sedimentary deposits and their Phanerozoic-modern equivalents. Some form of plate tectonics, with rapid microplate collisions and concomitant volcanic activity, is inferred to have led to the formation of greenstone belts. Explosive volcanism promoted common gravity-flow deposits within terrestrial greenstone settings, with braided alluvial, wave/storm-related and tidal coastline sediments also being preserved. Late Archean accretion of greenstone terraines led to emergence of proto-cratons, where cratonic and rift sedimentary assemblages developed, and these became widespread in the Proterozoic as cratonic plates stabilised. Carbonate deposition was restricted by the paucity of stable Archaean terranes. An Early Precambrian atmosphere characterised by greenhouse gases, including CO2, in conjunction with a faster rotation of the Earth and reduced albedo, provide a solution to the faint young Sun paradox. As emergent continental crust developed, volcanic additions of CO2 became balanced by withdrawal due to weathering and a developing Palaeoproterozoic microbial biomass. The reduction in CO2, and the photosynthetic production of O2, led to aerobic conditions probably being achieved by about 2 Ga. Oceanic growth was allied to atmospheric development, with approximately 90% of current ocean volume being reached by about 4 Ga. Warm Archaean and warm, moist Palaeoproterozoic palaeoclimates appear to have become more arid after about 2.3 Ga. The 2.4-2.3 Ga Huronian glaciation event was probably related to continental growth, supercontinent assembly and weathering-related CO2 reduction. Desite many analogous features among both Precambrian and younger sedimentary deposits, there appear to be major differences as well. Two pertinent examples are rare unequivocal aeolian deposits prior to about 1.8 Ga and an apparent scarcity of Precambrian foreshore deposits, particularly those related to barrier island systems. The significance of these differences is hard to evaluate, particularly with the reduced palaeoenvironmental resolution because of the absence of invertebrate and plant fossils within Precambrian successions. The latter factor also poses difficulties for the discrimination of Precambrian lacustrine and shallow marine deposits. The temporal distribution of aeolian deposits probably reflects a number of possible factors, including few exposed late Archaean-Palaeoproterozoic cratonic areas, extensive pre-vegetative fluvial systems, Precambria supercontinents and a different atmosphere. Alternatively, the scarcity of aeolian deposits prior to 1.8 Ga may merely reflect non-recognition or non-preservation. Other differences in Precambrian palaeoenvironments are more easily reconstructed. Ancient delta plain channels were probably braided, and much thicker preserved delta successions in the Precambrian are compatible with the inferred more active tectonic conditions. Pre-vegetational alluvial channel systems were almost certainly braided as well. Common fluvial quartz arenites are ascribed to differences in weathering processes, which probably changed significantly through the Precambrian, or to sediment recycling. Although Precambrian glacigenic environments were probably the least different from younger equivalents, their genesis appears to reflect a complex interplay of factors unique to the Precambrian Earth. These include emergence and amalgamation of proto-continents, the early CO2-rich atmosphere, the development of stromatolitic carbonate platforms, early weathering, faster rotation of the Earth and the possible role of changes in the inclination of the Earth's axis.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5-53
Number of pages49
JournalSedimentary Geology
Issue number1-4
Publication statusPublished - Sept 1998
Externally publishedYes


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