Cambrian Sauk transgression in the Grand Canyon region redefined by detrital zircons


The Sauk transgression was one of the most dramatic global marine transgressions in Earth history. It is recorded by deposition of predominantly Cambrian non-marine to shallow marine sheet sandstones unconformably above basement rocks far into the interiors of many continents. Here we use dating of detrital zircons sampled from above and below the Great Unconformity in the Grand Canyon region to bracket the timing of the Sauk transgression at this classic location. We find that the Sixtymile Formation, long considered a Precambrian unit beneath the Great Unconformity, has maximum depositional ages that get younger up-section from 527 to 509 million years old. The unit contains angular unconformities and soft-sediment deformation that record a previously unknown period of intracratonic faulting and epeirogeny spanning four Cambrian stages. The overlying Tapeats Sandstone has youngest detrital zircon ages of 505 to 501 million years old. When linked to calibrated trilobite zone ages of greater than 500 million years old, these age constraints show that the marine transgression across a greater than 300-km-wide cratonic region took place during an interval 505 to 500 million years ago—more recently and more rapidly than previously thought. We redefine this onlap as the main Sauk transgression in the region. Mechanisms for this rapid flooding of the continent include thermal subsidence following the final breakup of Rodinia, combined with abrupt global eustatic changes driven by climate and/or mantle buoyancy modifications.

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Fig. 1: Detrital zircon ages from the Sixtymile Formation and Tapeats Sandstone.
Fig. 2: Detrital zircon probability density plots and youngest grain ages from about 10,000 dated zircons from Cambrian successions of southwestern USA.


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Analytical support was in part from National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Earth Sciences (EAR) grants EAR-1119629, 1145247 and 1348007 from the Tectonics Program (to K.K. and L.C.). Support for J.M. was from Australian Research Council grant FL160100168. NSF grant EAR-1338583 provided support for the Arizona LaserChron Center. Analyses conducted at the University of Calgary were obtained at the Centre for Pure and Applied Tectonics and Thermochronology, a new LA-ICP-MS laboratory funded by the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI project 30696). Funding for the analytical infrastructure of the Boise State Isotope Geology Laboratory was provided by the NSF Major Research Instrumentation grants EAR-0521221 and EAR-1337887, and NSF EAR Instrumentation and Facilities Program grant EAR-0824974. We thank J. Foster, E. Rose, F. Sundberg and M. Webster for insights on fossils and facies of the Tonto Group, K. Honda for references, and patrons of the Denver Museum of Natural History for support of J.H.’s fieldwork. We thank C. Dehler for an informal review that helped improve the paper. We thank B. Guest for helping to forge the UNM-UC collaboration. Samples were collected under Research and Collecting agreements with Grand Canyon National Park.

Author contributions

K.K., J.M. and L.C. synthesized the data. J.H. contributed the palaeontology. J.H., J.M. and L.C. contributed the stratigraphy and sedimentology. G.G., J. M., M.P. and D.G. conducted the ICPMS analysis of Sixtymile Formation samples A–E. M.S. conducted CA-ID-TIMS analysis of Sixtymile Formation samples A–D. W.M. conducted the ICPMS analysis of Tapeats Sandstone samples G and H. L.M. conducted the ICPMS analysis of Grand Canyon Tapeats Standstone sample F.

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Correspondence to Karl Karlstrom.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figures and Supplementary Table 2 (CA-IDTIMS U-Pb isotopic data for Sixtymile Formation detrital zircons)

Supplementary Dataset 1

Supplementary Table 1 (detrital zircon data and max depositional age calculations by sample)

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Karlstrom, K., Hagadorn, J., Gehrels, G. et al. Cambrian Sauk transgression in the Grand Canyon region redefined by detrital zircons. Nature Geosci 11, 438–443 (2018).

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