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Geology of the

Athabasca Oil Sands


Field Guide & Overview

by
Michael J. Ranger
Murray K. Gingras

Field Excursion to the Outcrops and Mine Sites


of the Fort McMurray Area

4th edition
Copyright 2001, 2003 Michael J. Ranger, Murray K. Gingras (except where noted)
No part of this publication may be copied without permission.

Dr. Mike Ranger


808 West Chestermere Drive,
Chestermere. Alberta T1X 1B6 Canada
Tel: 403 235-2712 Fax: 430 235-2723
E-mail: mranger@telus.net

Dr. Murray Gingras


Dept. of Earth and Atmospheric Science
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2E3 Canada

TABLE OF CONTENTS
Introduction .................................................................................................................................... 3
Paleotopography of the McMurray Sub-Basin ............................................................................ 9
Sedimentology and Stratigraphy of the McMurray Formation in Core and Outcrop................... 14
Regional Interpretation of the McMurray Formation.................................................................... 26
Modern Physiographic Analogues for the McMurray Estuarine System .................................... 37
Structure of the North Athabasca Area ...................................................................................... 43
The Timing and Mechanism of Oil Migration and Trapping ...................................................... 48
Description of Selected Facies and Sedimentary Structures from the McMurray Formation ..... 71
Estuarine Ichnology of the Athabasca Deposit ............................................................................ 86
References .................................................................................................................................. 115

INTRODUCTION
The oil sands deposits of Alberta are collectively the greatest accumulation of bitumen in
the world. Total in-place reserves are estimated to be 267 billion m3 (1.68 trillion barrels). The
oil sands exist primarily in Cretaceous unconsolidated siliciclastic formations in three designated Oil Sands areas: Peace River, Athabasca and Cold Lake. Crude bitumen has also been
identified to exist in Paleozoic carbonates know as the "Carbonate Subcrop Trend" or simply
the "Carbonate Triangle". The Athabasca Oil Sands area (Fig. 1) contains by far the bulk of the

ALB ERTA

SASK.

LA

SK

Athabasca

Peace River

CA

NAD

Cold Lake
Lloydminster
CALGARY

km
0

200

OIL SANDS
HEAVY OIL

Oil Sands and Heavy Oil Deposits of Western Canada


Figure 1

bitumen reserves of Alberta (148.5 billion m3 - 934.5 billion barrels). The Athabasca, Peace
River and Cold Lake Deposits are contained within the Lower Cretaceous Mannville Group
and its equivalents (Fig. 2), which consists dominantly of unlithified siliciclastic sediments of
mixed continental and marine origins.
The reserves contained in Paleozoic
carbonates subcrop beneath the sub3 in place
bbls in place
m
Cretaceous Unconformity over a large
DEPOSIT
(billions)
(billions)
area of north central Alberta. The full
extent of the Subcrop Carbonate Trend
934.50
148.50
Athabasca
is as yet poorly defined, and their dis382.74
60.83
Carbonate Subcrop
tribution is based on very limited and
scattered borehole control. Recent es219.65
34.91
Cold Lake
timates of the in-place bitumen re142.70
22.68
Peace River
sources in the various deposits are
shown in Table 1.
Table 1

PELICAN FM / VIKING FM
PEACE RIVER FM

JOLI FOU FM
?

SPIRIT RIVER FM

BULL HEAD GP

CLEARWATER FM
A sand
B sand
C sand

BLUESKY FM.

GETHING FM.

CADOMIN FM

Figure 2

Red Earth
Ridge

WABISKAW MBR
"Kirby
channel"

"upper"

McMURRAY FM
"middle"

Grosmont High /
Wainwright Ridge

McMURRAY
FM

"lower"

MANNVILLE GP

UPPER

GRAND RAPIDS FM.

LOWER

FORT ST. JOHN GP

COLORADO SHALE

ALBIAN

BASE OF FISH SCALES ZONE

SHAFTESBURY SHALE

??

LOWER CRETACEOUS

McMurray
Subbasin

NEOCOMIAN
/ APTIAN

Wabasca
Subbasin

COLORADO GP.

Peace River
Subbasin

DEVONIAN

MISSISSIPPIAN

Lower Cretaceous Stratigraphy of Northeast Alberta

Athabasca
An area equivalent to 7% of the Athabasca Oil Sands Deposit has been designated as
surface mineable, where overburden and top reject is less than 75m in thickness. The remainder is overlain by increasing amounts of overburden towards the southwest. Overburden
thickness varies from 0m where it crops out along the Athabasca River, to about 500m at the
extreme southwest of the deposit. Recently produced figures suggest that approximately 41
billion barrels are recoverable by proven surface mining technologies. Athabasca is the only
deposit that crops out at the surface as an oil sands reservoir and it is the only deposit with
surface mineable reserves. There are two commercial, surface mining, oil sands projects active at the present time: Suncor presently produces over 80,000 barrels per day, and Syncrude
produces over 220,000 barrels per day of synthetic crude.
Most of the Athabasca reserves are contained within the Lower Mannville McMurray
Formation (Fig. 2), but there is some oil saturation in the overlying Clearwater Formation
sands (Wabiskaw Member) in the western and the southern part of the deposit. The McMurray Formation averages 40 to 60m in thickness and consists of uncemented, very fine to medium-grained quartz sand, interbedded with shales in highly complex channel systems.
Throughout much of the Athabasca Deposit the McMurray Formation is oil-bearing from the
top to the base, although there commonly is a discrete bitumen water contact, which is controlled by structure. Porosity in the clean sands generally varies between 25 to 35% and oil
saturations of 10 to 15 wt% are common.
Oil Sands Mining Operations
Of the 935 billion barrels of oil in place in the Athabasca Deposit, only about 92 billion
barrels lie in what is considered the surface mineable regions where there is less than 75m of
overburden. It is in this surface mineable area that Suncor and Syncrude are located.

The pioneering Suncor operation began operations in 1967 as Great Canadian Oil Sands
(GCOS), a consortium of petroleum companies. GCOS was renamed Suncor Oil Sands Group
in 1979. It was the first commercially successful operation in the oil sands industry and was
built at a cost of 235 million dollars, originally producing approximately 50,000 barrels of
synthetic crude oil per day. In May 1995, Sun Oil Co. of Philadelphia sold its 55% share in
Suncor for $1.2 billion. Current production rate (2002) at Suncor is over 225,000 barrels per
day. The Suncor operation is located on the banks of the Athabasca River, about 40 km north
of the town of Fort McMurray. Within the confines of the 4000 acre lease site, it is estimated
that there are approximately one billion barrels of bitumen in place, of which 630 million are
deemed recoverable.
The Syncrude plant opened in 1978. It was originally about three times the size of Suncor
and currently has a production rate of 250,000 to 260,000 barrels per day. Syncrude has 3,900
permanent employees and 1000 contractors, and is run by a consortium that originally included various major companies and governments. The Syncrude operation is located immediately adjacent to the Suncor property. The total area of all the Syncrude leases is over 680
km2 (25% of the world's countries are smaller than the total area of Syncrude's leases!) The
mine itself covers an area of 28 km2 and is 60m deep.
Oil sands mines are amongst the largest earth moving operations in the world. A rule of
thumb is that it takes approximately two tons of oil sand to produce one barrel of synthetic
crude oil. In addition, the handling of tailings material and overburden increases the figure to
5 tons per barrel produced. For a capacity of 200,000 barrels per day, Syncrude must daily
handle in excess of 1,000,000 tons of earth material.
Excavation of the ore body at Syncrude was originally by drag lines, which casts the oil
sand into "windrows" adjacent to the pit. From there it is reclaimed by bucketwheel excavators and transported to the extraction plant by conveyor belts. This operation is known as the
"Base Mine" at Syncrude.
As of October 1993, Suncor has used truck and shovel equipment exclusively for oil sand
mining. Four bucketwheel excavators, worth $50 million each, were retired upon being replaced by the new trucks and shovels. Modern 320 ton heavy hauler trucks and large capacity
hydraulic shovels are more efficient and flexible and are quickly making the draglines and
bucketwheels obsolete. 400 ton trucks are currently in development. The largest shovels can
load about 150,000 tons of oil sand per day, and can load a 320 ton truck in 2 minutes. Although Syncrude still utilizes draglines and bucketwheel reclaimers to mine the oil sand in
their Base Mine, the use of draglines and bucketwheels will be phased out when the Base
Mine is depleted. The truck and shovel method is used exclusively in Syncrude's "North
Mine" (Fig. 3), as well as the new "Aurora Mine". All conveyor belts are also being eliminated.
The bitumen will be partially extracted form the sand and then mixed with water before it
leaves the mine and transported to the extraction plant as a slurry.
From the mine pit the oil sands are moved either by conveyor belts or pumped through
pipelines to the extraction plant in a continuous stream, where steam, hot water and caustic
are added. After passing through a screen to eliminate oversize material, the various slurry
streams pass into banks of separation cells where oil froths to the surface and is skimmed off.
The sand sinks to the bottom and is pumped off to the tailings pond. Middlings in the separa-

tion cells are recycled and scavenged. The bitumen may be subjected to centrifuging to remove any
remaining mineral matter. Overall,
this type of commercial extraction
process has proven to be on the order of 92% efficient. Only 8 % of the
input bitumen ends up in the tailings pond.
At Syncrude raw bitumen from
the extraction plant is upgraded to
synthetic crude oil through a process of fluid coking. Various relaFigure 3 Syncrude North Mine
tively pure liquid hydrocarbons are
drawn from the coker and then
blended together to form a synthetic crude product which can be pipelined to refineries in
Edmonton. The principal by-products of the upgrading process are sulphur, of which the
original bitumen contains 5%, and coke.
Revegetation of tailings has proved a major difficulty. The sand is exceedingly sterile,
having been subjected to boiling and caustic treatment. Nonetheless with the addition of
fertilizers and organic additives, ground cover foliage has been successfully established, and
land reclamation is an ongoing commitment.
In June 1995, both Suncor and Syncrude announced plans for expansion. Suncor's new
mine, the "Steepbank Mine" is located on the east side of the Athabasca River, whereas Syncrude's new mine site, "Aurora" is about 35 km northeast of their present operations. Aurora
has been in production since 2000 and uses trucks and shovels exclusively. The oil sand is
pipelined to the extraction plant as a slurry in a process termed "Hydrotransport". In the
hydrotransport process, the oil sand is mixed with water and pumped through a pipeline
rather than moved on an open conveyor belt. As it travels, the oil sand begins digesting and
conditioning, eliminating the first step of the extraction process, and arrives at the extraction
plant ready for separation. Aside from eliminating the need for tumblers at the processing
plant, hydrotransport also uses less energy, is less expensive to build and operate, and is
more flexible than conveyor belts.
Together Syncrude and Suncor provide about 25% of Canada's petroleum requirements.
The Alberta Energy and Utilities Board speculates that Alberta's oil sand reserves will be the
primary source for Canada's crude oil within a decade, offsetting rapid declines in conventional crude stocks. When Syncrude opened, it cost over CAD$24 to produce one barrel of
synthetic crude. Today a cost of just over $12.50 per barrel has been achieved and is expected
to be $12 in the near future. Suncor has already achieves production costs of close to $12 per
barrel. A key advantage of oil sands bitumen operations is that the known location of its huge
deposits eliminates most exploration risk, a major cost for a conventional petroleum company.

In Situ Bitumen Recovery


Ninety percent of Alberta's oil sands lies deep below the surface and cannot be recovered
by surface mining. Most in situ techniques involve injecting steam through a series of wells
into the oil sand. The pressure and high temperature cause the bitumen and water to separate
from the sand particles, and lowers the viscosity of the bitumen. The hot liquid migrates
towards producing wells, bringing it to the surface, while the sand is left in place. As a result
of extensive research, substantial improvements have been made in recovery of in situ bitumen.
AOSTRA (Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority) is a test facility and
research centre that has been operating since 1987, focusing on the deeply buried oil sands
reservoirs. Its Underground Test Facility (UTF) is located 70 km northwest of Fort McMurray.
AOSTRA's research includes the development of new oil sands and heavy oil technology and
development projects, ranging from small bench scale projects to major in situ pilot plants.
The most successful process developed by AOSTRA has been SAGD (Steam Assisted Gravity
Drainage), which utilises vertical pairs of horizontal wells (Fig. 4). Each pair has a producer
completed 2-3m above the base of the bitumen, and an injector about 5m above the producer
(Fig. 4). At the UTF, the horizontal wells were originally
drilled upward from shafts
that were sunk into the underlying Devonian limestones. Subsequent projects
using newer technology
demonstrated that the process can also be effective with
horizontal wells drilled from
the surface. Using horizontal wells also obviates one of
the major problems experienced with recovery
schemes using vertical wells:
complex stratigraphy of the
McMurray Fm. makes lateral continuity between
wells extremely unpredictFigure 4
Principles of SAGD technology
able.
There is presently much interest in oil sands development in Alberta. Many companies
are competing to establish a favourable land position and re-evaluating their existing land
holdings. This appears to be due to several factors. First, in the mineable area, the realization
that modern truck and shovel operations can be more economic than draglines and bucketwheels makes smaller, lower capital mining projects feasible. Second, the potential of SAGD
for in situ recovery has been so promising that such techniques have made the transition
from experimental to commercial. Third, there are preliminary plans to expand the existing
pipeline infrastructure to a maximum capacity of about 300,000 m3/d (1,900,000 bbl/d), given
favourable market conditions. Pipeline capacity out of Athabasca, including the soon-to-be-

completed Corridor Pipeline, is presently approximately 120,000 m3/d (750,000 bbl/d). Finally, many long-term oil sands leases are coming up for renewal or relinquishment in the
next several years. This is the incentive for companies to re-evaluate their land holdings, as
well as the entire Athabasca Deposit, for potential sites where the most efficient recovery
techniques may be effectively applied.
Besides the UTF installation (now run commercially by Devon Energy, and known as the
"Dover" project), several companies have commercial SAGD projects in development or in
the early stages of production, i.e. EnCana Foster Creek, EnCana Christina Lake, Suncor Firebag, and Petro-Canada MacKay River. Other potential projects in the planning stages include
Deer Creek Joslyn Project, Petro-Canada Meadow Creek, Japan Canada Hangingstone, OPTINexen Long Lake, Conoco Surmont and CNRL (Rio Alto) Kirby.

PALEOTOPOGRAPHY OF THE McMURRAY SUBBASIN


In the area of the Athabasca Oil Sands, the McMurray Formation rests on truncated Upper
Devonian strata, mainly limestone and calcareous shale of the Waterways Formation in the
east and somewhat younger carbonate rocks of the Woodbend Group in the west. In the most
generalised terms, the mainly marginal-marine sediments of the McMurray Formation can
be viewed as consequent valley fill of a broad, north-trending drainage system entrenched in
the exposed landscape of Devonian terrain. Deposition of the McMurray Formation ceased in
the middle Albian, when the Boreal Sea transgressed the entire region, ushering in marine
conditions and giving rise to deposition of the mudstones of the Clearwater Formation.
During the Early Cretaceous (Neocomian/Aptian) in the Western Canada Sedimentary
Basin, the unconformity terrain was an immature, continental, erosional landscape dominated by three major drainage systems. These drainage systems had developed their orientations dominantly due to differential erosion of gently dipping strata. But tectonic and other
structural elements certainly played a role. The subcropping strata dip to the southwest, and
thus the erosional surface exposes older strata of the Middle to Upper Devonian Beaverhill
Lake Group in the northeast, and strata as young as Late Jurassic toward the southwest (Leckie
and Smith, 1992). These drainage systems are separated from each other by major axial ridge
systems of resistant Devonian carbonates that constitute the drainage divides. Each of these
three trunk drainage systems constitute what may be thought of as depositional subbasins.
Certainly this is true as far as deposition of the Lower Mannville is concerned. During the
major sea-level transgressions of the Aptian and Albian, each valley system would have been
flooded and would have reacted independently depending on the topography and dynamics
of the sediment supply.
In the east of the basin is the axial ridge system of resistant Devonian carbonates known as
the Wainwright Ridge in central Alberta and the Grosmont High in northeastern Alberta (Fig.
5). This axial ridge system forms the western boundary of a major drainage valley system
informally referred to as the McMurray Valley System. It is in this valley system that the
Athabasca and Cold Lake Oil Sands Deposits as well as the Lloydminster heavy oil fields are
located. The valley system is confined to the east by the highlands of the Canadian Shield,
and its axis follows a trend parallel to the strike of the outcrop of the Canadian Shield in
northeast Alberta, through south-central Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and might be expected
to have its headwaters in the area of the Manitoba Escarpment or somewhat farther south.
The paleotopographic low that forms the axis of the McMurray Valley System has been localised by the dissolution of evaporitic facies mainly of the Middle Devonian Prairie Evaporite,
but also to some degree the Lower Devonian Cold Lake and Lotsberg Formations. This dissolution was responsible for structural subsidence of the overlying basin before, during, and
after deposition of the Wabiskaw/McMurray sediments. The McMurray Valley System of
northeast Alberta is eroded into Middle to Upper Devonian carbonates and shales of the
Beaverhill Lake Group in the east and Upper Devonian carbonates of the Woodbend Group
in the west.
Several studies over the last few years have shown how the underlying basin topography
has profoundly influenced the distribution of facies and, in particular, reservoir facies in the
Mannville Group. Zaitlin and Schultz (1984) demonstrated that the geomorphology of an
Upper Mannville Lloydminster estuarine system in the Senlac area was probably inherited
from differential compaction over a buried valley on the sub-Cretaceous unconformity. In the
Wabasca area, the Wabiskaw Member reservoir sands of the Athabasca Oil Sands are also

Figure 5

103

19

18

19

17

18

16

17

15

16

14

10

70

71

72

73

74

75

76

77

15

10

13

12

11

10

Peace River
Subbasin

14

78

11

20

10

30

30 40
50
kilometres

20

miles

60

40

ge

70

Contour Interval: 10m

10

id

79

12

t
ar

80

13

ed

81

14

82

83

84

85

86

87

88

89

90

15

eroded

not present

0-10m

10-20

20-30

30-40

40-50

50-60

60-70

70-80

80-90

90-100

>110m

25

24

1w5

26

25

24

23

22

21

22

nt High

21

20

;
23

Wabasca
Subbasin

1w5

92

93

94

95

96

97

98

99

100

1992 Michael J. Ranger

80

50

Inferred Paleotopography of the


Sub-Cretaceous Unconformity

101

102

;
;
;
;
;;; ; ; ; ; ; ;
;
;
;
;
;;;;;;;;;;;;; ;
;;;;;;;;; ;;;;;
;;;;;
;
;
;
;
;;;;;;;; ;
;
;
;
;;;;;;; ; ;
;;;;;;;;;;
; ;;;

Isopach of the
Lower Mannville Group

104

20

Grosmo

15

13

10

14

13

12

11

10

Subbasin

McMurray

McMurray

Fort

1w4

Bitumount
Subbasin

1w4

70

71

72

73

74

75

76

77

78

79

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81

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97

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99

100

101

102

103

104

Axis of the
McMurray
Valley System

to the boreal sea

Approximate western edge of


Prairie Evaporite Salt Solution

11

;
;
;
;
;
;
; ;; ;;; ;; ;;
; ;; ;;; ;; ;;
;
;
;
;
;
;
;
; ;; ;; ; ;; ;
; ;; ;;; ;; ;;
; ; ; ;
12

partly controlled by a buried valley system eroded into Devonian carbonates that subcrop at
the unconformity (Ranger et al., 1988). These Wabiskaw sand bodies evidently form several
discrete, broad, shoreface aprons that onlap the buried Paleozoic highlands of the Red Earth
Ridge (Ranger, 1994). The main reservoir of the Athabasca Oil Sands, the McMurray Formation, has been shown in several studies to have been profoundly controlled by the valley
systems of the underlying sub-Cretaceous unconformity that constitute the McMurray subbasin described above (Stewart, 1963, 1981; Stewart and McCallum, 1978; Flach, 1984; Keith
et al., 1988; Ranger and Pemberton, 1988; MacGillivray et al., 1989; Ranger, 1994).
The unconformity is a hard, indurated surface. It can be considered as the basement for
the Lower Cretaceous succession and no doubt had a profound effect on the distribution of
facies in the McMurray Formation. The topography on this erosional surface is therefore of
vital importance, because it is on this surface that the reservoir rocks of the Athabasca Oil
Sands Deposit were deposited.
The sub-Cretaceous unconformity surface can be modelled either by mapping its structural elevation or, probably more accurately, by mapping the thickness of a suitable interval
whose base lies directly on the unconformity surface. If it is assumed that some overlying
stratigraphic marker approximated a regionally flat surface (relative to paleo-sea level),
then an isopach map of the interval between the upper marker and the unconformity forms a
mould of the unconformity surface, where the thins represent the highs on the unconformity
and the thicks define the lows.
An ideal datum for this technique is the top of the Mannville Group, but in the regional
Athabasca area the top of the Upper Mannville Group is unsuitable as a datum due to erosion
in the northeast. In this study the isopach of the McMurray Formation itself is used as a
model of the unconformity paleotopography (Figure 5).
The regional map of the sub-Cretaceous unconformity topography underlying the Athabasca Deposit reveals a northerly-trending, axial ridge that effectively divides the area into
two subbasins, informally termed the "McMurray Subbasin" in the east and the "Wabasca
Subbasin" in the west. This ridge is informally known as the Grosmont High because it apparently results from resistant carbonates of the Grosmont Formation. In the bigger picture,
the Grosmont High is a north-trending spur of the Wainwright Ridge.
The McMurray formation is missing, and apparently was not deposited on the crest of the
Grosmont High. These areas are shown in a brickwork pattern, and would have been highland areas and then islands during marine transgressions. The Wainwright Ridge - Grosmont
High complex has numerous secondary spurs branching obliquely away from it on both the
east and west sides. On the east side these spurs trend in a northeast direction, and the valleys
between them form major northeast flowing tributaries that can be mapped into the central
valley of the McMurray subbasin. In the south-central portion of the study area is a large
ridge that extends along ranges 9 and 10 from township 77 down to at least township 70. This
is the extension of a major spur from the Wainwright Ridge south of the Athabasca area. To
the north another major spur extends at an oblique angle to the main ridge. The intervening
valley forms another major tributary of the McMurray system, but one that flows dominantly
north to approximately township 94 where it abruptly turns to the east and enters the trunk
system in the area of the Bitumount subbasin.
Over the Bitumount Basin area, there is no suitable stratigraphic datum to use in an isopach map due to widespread Pleistocene erosion. Here only the structural elevation of the
Sub-Cretaceous Unconformity can be used as a model of its paleotopography (Figure 6). One
must be aware, however, that the structure map reflects not only erosional paleotopography,

11

12

but also any structural effects that have occurred in the basin up to the present day. And there
appear to have been some profound structural effects in some areas. In particular there has
been post-Mannville structural collapse of 50 metres or more over part of the Bitumount
basin.
Despite the uncertainties of using a structure map to reconstruct the erosional paleotopography of the Unconformity, general observations can be made regarding the regional setting
of the North Athabasca area (Fig. 6). The structural low known as the Bitumount Basin apparently lies at the northern reaches of the McMurray Channel Valley system, near the mouth of
what appears to be a major secondary valley system. The main trunk valley system of the
McMurray lies to the south, and appears to bifurcate. Koch Fort Hills, Aurora and OSLO lie
within the eastern valley, while the Syncrude base mine complex and Suncor lies within the
western valley. In the Bitumount Basin, subsidence is apparent in the Mannville sediments,
and furthermore, regional isopach maps show a dramatic thickening of the lower Mannville
interval within this area, even taking into account the eroded nature of its top. This indicates
that the Bitumount Basin was a topographically low area during McMurray deposition, and
that structural subsidence continued even after the end of McMurray time.
The Bitumount Basin appears to have be a local catch basin. Both arms of the regional
bifurcation of the trunk valley system to the south appear to drain into the Bitumount Basin.
As well there is another secondary valley system draining the Grosmont High far to west,
which ultimately joins the McMurray trunk valley system in the Bitumount Basin area. Further north from the Bitumount Basin the trunk valley system appears to continue northward
up range 10 to approximately township 99 where the entire interval has been removed by
erosion. It is these regional valley systems that provided the topographic conditions for the
development of widespread estuarine complexes during Lower Cretaceous sea level rise.
The Lower Mannville sediments therefore are the consequence of the filling of a drowned
major river valley.

13

SEDIMENTOLOGY AND STRATIGRAPHY


OF THE McMURRAY FORMATION IN CORE AND OUTCROP

Carrigy (1959) established the informal threefold stratigraphy of the McMurray Formation consisting of lower, middle and upper units. This basic stratigraphy has not evolved
much since then and remains informal, although the units are often referred to as members.
(upper, middle and lower are not capitalised in this guide in keeping with the informal nature of the subdivision and the rules of stratigraphic nomenclature.) Many of the McMurray Formation cores and outcrops in the Athabasca region appear to exhibit this threefold facies. These vary in thickness and expression from place to place. The lower member,
where present, typically consists of thick-bedded to massive sands, commonly medium to
coarse grained, characterised throughout by current cross-stratification.
The middle member is a complex set of facies associations, but the best reservoir sands
are thick bedsets of clean sand dominated by planar tabular to sigmoidal megarippled bedding. The are also good reservoir sands contained in very large scale sets of inclined strata,
up to 25 m in thickness. In all essential regards these conform to Allens definition of epsilon
cross-strata (Allen, 1963), or in the more modern context, Inclined Heterolithic Stratification
(IHS) (Thomas et al., 1987).
The upper member typically consists of horizontally-bedded argillaceous sands and silts,
often coarsening and becoming sandier upwards. Overlying the McMurray, apparently unconformably, are the muds and glauconitic sands of the Clearwater Formation and its Wabiskaw Member.
In the north Athabasca area, this tripartite stratigraphic subdivision generally manifests
itself strongly. Where preserved, the upper McMurray is generally a coarsening and sandier
upwards unit, 10 to 15 metres in thickness. Physically the basal contact of the upper McMurray is most dramatic in outcrop where it typically overlies estuarine IHS beds of the middle
McMurray (Fig. 7). Here, the locally flat-lying stratigraphy of the upper McMurray is in sharp
contrast to the IHS beds which display a dip of up to 12 to 15 degrees. In core the contact may
be more subtle, and therefore not easily determined.
Many workers have fit their studies into this threefold subdivision (James, 1977; Nelson
and Glaister, 1978; Stewart and MacCallum, 1978; Flach, 1984). Yet no one has yet been able to
reconcile and correlate the stratigraphy observed in these various studies. Given the acknowledged difficulty in correlating beyond a limited area (Mossop, 1980a; Flach, 1984), it seems
that most workers are reconciled to let McMurray stratigraphy remain on an informal basis.
However one study (Nelson and Glaister 1978) stands out for recognising widespread, correlatable, radioactive (gamma ray) signatures from wells in a local subsurface study in the
central Athabasca Deposit. Nelson and Glaister pointed out that within the McMurray Formation there exists at least two correlatable shales, which they believed to be time stratigraphic markers. They used these markers to subdivide the McMurray Formation into three
units, each of which they mapped as a discrete depositional system.
Carrigy (1971) observed large inclined bedsets exposed at the Steepbank River interpreting them as delta foresets. These well-known outcrop exposures are now believed to be inclined heterolithic stratification (IHS) of point bars in a deep incised channel complex (Flach
and Mossop, 1978). Carrigy (1971) went on to interpret much of the McMurray Formation in
the northern part of the deposit as fluvial-dominated deltaic and related deposits. His conclusions were based partly on the interpretation that the McMurray Formation was primarily

14

15

Figure 7

Outcrop along the Steepbank River. The complete McMurray Interval is exposed at this site, from light-weathering Devonian Limestone at the
base to the dark shales of the Wabiskaw near the top. Inclined unit is the IHS beds of the middle McMurray

Figure 8

16

Figure 9

metres

STEEPBANK 3

10

20

30

40

50

Megarippled
Sand Units

IHS Units

Coarsening-up Unit

240m
metres

STEEPBANK 4

Scintillometer Response

185m
metres

STEEPBANK 5

10
20
30

10
20
30
40
50

17

40

Wabiskaw Mbr

Clearwater Fm

upper McMurray

50

Steepbank Outcrop

McMurray Fm
middle McMurray

of freshwater origin, except for a marine wedge at the top that thickens towards the north and
west. A deltaic model has been proposed in several other studies, the most detailed being that
of Nelson and Glaister (1978).
Seminal work on the outcrop exposures around Fort McMurray has contributed greatly to
a basic understanding of the sedimentology of the reservoir facies (Mossop, 1980a; Mossop
and Flach, 1983; Flach, 1984; Flach and Mossop, 1985). Flach and Mossop have demonstrated
that some of the best reservoirs of the Athabasca Deposit are deep, sand-filled, incised channel complexes. This observation is of prime economic importance. However, these channels,
or at least their sandy facies, appear to be of relatively limited extent and, while common in
outcrop, there has been only limited success in extrapolating the outcrop observations into
the subsurface (Mossop, 1980a; Flach and Mossop, 1985). Moreover, it appears that sandy
facies of the McMurray Formation are preferentially preserved in outcrop, therefore giving a
biased, but highly visible and influential sample of the reservoir architecture.
The suggestion that much of the McMurray Formation may have been deposited under
estuarine conditions was first proposed by Stewart and MacCallum after many years of subsurface and outcrop study (Stewart, 1963, 1981; Stewart and MacCallum, 1978). They put
forth the commonly held interpretation that the McMurray Formation consists of a lower
fluvial unit, a thick middle estuarine unit and an upper marine unit, and they mapped these
facies over much of the northern part of the deposit. Much of their detailed work has survived the test of time, and the basic threefold subdivision is still generally accepted. In many
studies the threefold facies model is equated to the informal threefold stratigraphic framework of Carrigy (1959).

Lower McMurray
The lower McMurray is distinctive for its generally coarser grain sizes, massive sand units
and rare to no bioturbation. The lower McMurray can be somewhat elusive, being limited to
structural lows on the sub-Cretaceous unconformity, confined by Devonian carbonate highlands. The typical lower McMurray succession is an ideal genetic unit whose facies were
deposited in a recurring association, characterized by sand units that fine upwards from medium- or coarse-grained, large-scale, cross-stratified sand to fine-grained, small-scale, crossstratified sand and then is abruptly overlain by a muddy facies. The large-scale cross-stratified sand lies on the angular Sub-Cretaceous Unconformity or a thin paleosol immediately
above the unconformity. Intraclasts of underlying calcareous mud may be present in the sand
just above the contact, and the basal sands are generally pebbly or very coarse-grained. Some
wells also contain a thin, "hot", felspathic sand near the contact that produces a radioactive
spike on gamma ray logs.
The large-scale cross-stratified sand grades upward into small-scale cross-stratified or massive sand, and more rarely into interbedded sand/mud beds interpreted as sand-dominated
IHS. The muddy facies is typically a grey mud, which may contain rooted horizons. In the
northern Athabasca area, the lower McMurray is capped by a unit consisting of coal, organic
shale and/or rooted, light grey shale (Fig 10). This unit varies in thickness from nil to tens of
metres in thickness and probably represents a late stage aggradational marsh/paleosol environment when sea level rise gradually began to outpaced sediment supply. The light coloured shales probably result from pedogenesis within a humid oxidising environment. The
dark grey carbonaceous muds and coal indicate increasing organic content of facies under
more reducing, probably shallow subaqueous, marsh conditions (Fig. 10). Bioturbation is

18

marsh/paleosol

rare to absent within most of the lower McMurray, although it may


be present in many wells in the upper units and in sand facies
within the marsh paleosol.
The genetic units of the lower McMurray indicate deposition
within a fluvial environment. The overall succession suggests preservation of a fluvial meandering channel environment. The fining-upward successions, paucity of burrowing, and presence of
rooted and coal horizons are all typical of a fluvial origin. Palynological evidence has indicated generally fresh water conditions with
rare brackish water influences for the lower McMurray (Flach,
1984).
The sharp lower contact results from channel erosion and incision. Where it lies directly on the sub-Cretaceous unconformity,
erosion has further entrenched the basement carbonates. The largescale cross-stratified sand units result from high flow regime dunes
within the basal channel bed. Small-scale cross-stratified sand results from waning flow conditions on larger channel bedforms and
on point bar surfaces. The occurrences of sand-dominated IHS are
point bar lateral accretion deposits, and suggest a tidal influence.
Grey rooted mud is the result of floodplain and overbank deposits. Some small-scale, cross-stratified sands grade up into chaotic
carbonaceous sand with abundant wood fragments and carbonaceous debris. These units probably represent crevasse splays. Occasional mud intraclast breccias result from erosion of overbank
deposits. These typically occur at the bottom of a channel succession as a channel lag and probably survive transport over only a
short distance within the channel.
The rare presence of bioturbation (Fig. 10) indicates that the
fluvial system may have been the upper reaches of a greater estuarine system, whose marine influence began to encroach up the fluvial valleys during the later stages of the aggradation of the lower
Figure 10
McMurray. Taken in the transgressive context of the entire McMurray succession, a basinward estuarine component to the lower McMurray systems tract in not unreasonable.
Previous studies have invariably assigned a fluvial interpretation to the lower McMurray
(Carrigy, 1971; Stewart and MacCallum, 1978; Flach, 1984; Flach and Mossop, 1985; Rennie,
1987; Fox, 1988).
Middle McMurray
Typical middle McMurray genetic units were deposited in recurring facies associations.
Large-scale, cross-stratified sand developed initially on a sharp erosional contact with lower
McMurray, or lies directly on the Sub-Cretaceous Unconformity where the lower McMurray
is not present. We term this facies association FA1.
The dominant facies of FA1 consists of bedsets up to 0.5 m or more in thickness. Planarlaminated cross-stratification with toeset development indicates that these are high flow regime, sigmoidal, megarippled dunes (Fig 11). Topset laminae are rarely preserved. These
bedsets commonly contain tidal indicators, such as reverse flow ripples, reactivation sur-

19

faces, herringbone bedding


and other evidence of local
flow reversals as well as
rhythmic grain size couplets
(often in recurring series of 7,
14 or 28). Within bedsets, bioturbation is absent. But the
truncated upper surface of a
bedset may be capped by a
thin shale lamina, and/or a
bioturbated horizon suggesting a period of quiescence or
abandonment. Trace fossils
are rare but robust, and the
assemblage has a very low diversity, typically consisting
Figure 11 Cross-stratified sigmoidal bedsets of FA1. Lens
only of Cylindrichnus and Skocover is approximately 6cm in diameter
lithos. At several locations
rare Conichnus have been observed. Conichnus is believed to be the resting trace of a sea
anemone, a marine organism intolerant of brackish or fresh water conditions.
Although FA1 is perhaps easily mistaken at first glance (especially in core) for high flow
regime fluvial channel deposits, the presence of marine trace fossil indicators suggests at
least periodic incursion of marine conditions. But combined with the tidal structures, a strong
marine influence is indicated. We interpret this facies association to have originated in the
lower (outer) estuary, proximal to an estuary mouth, with flow velocities magnified by tidal
effects.
Sand-dominated and/or mud-dominated IHS (Inclined Heterolithic Stratification) typically overlies FA1
with an erosional contact. The IHS bedsets are a major
component of a facies association we term 'FA2'. The
IHS sand/mud couplets vary greatly in thickness from
approximately 7 cm to 50 cm, generally either mud- or
sand-dominated. Bedding is inclined anywhere from
near horizontal up to a maximum apparent angle in core
of 15 (Fig. 12). Each sand/mud couplet consists of a
fine- to very fine-grained sand bed whose base may be
erosional, followed by a sharp transition up into a silty
mud bed. The contact is generally bioturbated with mud
filled burrows penetrating down into the sand (Fig. 13).
The sands are cross-stratified on a small-scale and probably result from waning flow conditions on point bar
surfaces. Individual sand and mud beds are known from
outcrop to be laterally continuous from the top of a facies
unit to near the base where the mud beds gradually
pinch out into cross-stratified sands, where they were
probably scoured away and therefore not preserved.

20

Figure 12 Sand-dominated IHS in the


subsurface middle McMurray

Mud intraclast
breccia is commonly
found in association
with the cross-stratified sands, and occasionally with the
IHS beds. Grey mud
or interlaminated
silt and mud typically caps the succession. Bioturbation is common
throughout the middle
McMurray
facies, except for the
cross-stratified sand
where it is rare. This
ideal association of
facies is often repeated within the Figure 13 IHS beds in outcrop, Ichnofossil assemblage is monospecific, consisting solely of Cylindrichnus
middle McMurray
although complete successions are rare. Typically, multiple partial successions are complexly
stacked such that individual genetic units are difficult to differentiate in core alone.
We suggest that this facies association, FA2, supports deposition within a channelised
central estuarine environment. The fining-upward successions, bioturbation overprint indicative of brackish water conditions, and overwhelming abundance of IHS cycles suggest that
the estuarine channel point bars have been preferentially preserved. The basal sands of an
IHS set are the expression of subaqueous dunes within the thalweg of the estuary channel.
The erosional lower contact of FA2 results from channel meander erosion and incision. Paleocurrent directions are locally unidirectional within IHS sets, although may vary regionally by
up to 90 degrees.
The sand- and mud-dominated
IHS result from lateral accretion deposition on tidally-influenced point bars
(Fig. 14). Relative proportions of sand
and mud in IHS point bar deposits
may reflect normal brackish conditions relative to the position of a turbidity maximum in the estuary. Muddominated point bars slowly accumulate mud drapes over a relatively long
period due to the position within the
turbidity maximum, seaward of the
head of the salt wedge; sand-dominated point bars, beyond the influence
of the turbidity maximum, accrete
Figure 14 Point bar model for IHS
coarser sediment. During periods of
high fluvial discharge, which may be

21

a seasonal flooding phenomenon or a random, intense storm event, the salt wedge becomes
vertically homogenous and is displaced downstream, along with the turbidity maximum.
Entrained in the flood waters is an influx of sand, which accumulates rapidly over only a few
days. The surface of a new sandy substrate covering a previously mud-dominated point bar
can then become the site of an "opportunistic" colonisation of fauna. In the middle McMurray
FA2 units, such fauna seems to consist largely of the Gyrolithes and Cylindrichnus trace-makers. In contrast, the displaced turbidity maximum may deposit mud over a previously sanddominated point bar, also disrupting the normal faunal populations. Opportunistic colonisation would necessarily be short-lived, because once the turbidity maximum returns to its
normal physiographic position and sediments once more begin to accumulate under "fairweather" conditions, the opportunistic fauna are smothered or otherwise displaced. Therefore whether the IHS point bars are sand- or mud-dominated probably depends mostly on
their physiographic position relative to the turbidity maximum in the estuary, although other
factors may certainly play a role, such as the morphology of the point bar, and relative strength
of currents.
The mud intraclast breccias result from erosion of older muddy point bars and overbank
collapse deposits. These typically accumulate at the bottom of a channel succession as a channel lag and probably survive transport over only a short distance within the channel.
The grey mud and thinly interbedded silt/mud deposits are typically highly bioturbated
and represent tidal flats flanking the estuarine channel/point bar complex. The tidal flat environment is topographically higher and accumulates over the point bar as vertical accretion
deposits. This can be considered the estuarine channel "overbank" environment, and is heavily influenced by tides in contrast to purely fluvial overbank deposits. Within modern estuarine complex environments, tidal flats are typically the most heavily populated and biologically complex environments.
Mud intervals several metres, or tens of metres, thick that are barren of ichnofossils are
interpreted as fill in abandoned estuarine tributary channels, which were periodically flooded
with turbid fresh water due to overbank flooding during periods of high fluvial discharge.
This facies is seldom seen in outcrop, because it has almost no resistance to erosion, but is
relatively common in core.
Flach (1984) recognised that the ideal middle McMurray succession displays many of the
characteristics of a channelised system: a scoured base; fining-upward sand grain size; an
upward increase in the number and thickness of mud beds; and the paleocurrent indicators
are unidirectional. Although Flach downplayed the estuarine interpretation of the channel
systems, the evidence of marine brackish influence is unequivocal. Trace fossils are rare to
absent in freshwater fluvial systems. The trace fossils found within the middle McMurray are
noteworthy for their small size, generally simple morphology, low diversity and high abundance, and they represent a combination of traces from both the Skolithos and Cruziana ichnofacies, all typical of a brackish water environment (Pemberton et al., 1982; Beynon and
Pemberton, 1992; Ranger and Pemberton, 1992).
The cyclicity of the interbedded units on all scales is also compelling evidence for marine
tidal influence. The characteristic sand-mud couplets of the IHS units can only result from
cyclic energy levels. Within the upper mud flats, rhythmic wavy and lenticular bedding are
indicative of flow-reversals. Alternating burrowed and unburrowed zones within the same
facies indicate variations in the physical regime of the environment.
Mud is a common constituent of estuarine channel point bars, but is rare in fluvial point
bars, except were tidally influenced. Allen (1991) recognised the increasing mud content of

22

estuarine point bars downstream from the fluvial-tidal transition in the Gironde estuary. The
estuarine point bars contain ripple cross-bedded sand with abundant mud laminae and flasers, resulting from the proximity of the turbidity maximum. In outcrop exposures of the
middle McMurray, mud layers drape the entire point bar surfaces from the top almost to the
base (Flach, 1984; Flach and Mossop, 1985).
Flach suggested that there is apparent continuity of bedding from cross-bedded sands
(FA1) up into the IHS units (FA2), indicating that they are two facies of the same genetic unit.
Close examination of the Steepbank River outcrops as well as many other outcrops visited on
this field trip indicate that this is not so. FA1 and FA2 are almost invariably in erosional contact, an important, highly relevant, point when we talk about the stratigraphic development
of the McMurray Formation in subsequent chapters.
Upper McMurray
The upper McMurray in outcrop is distinctive for its dark grey mud, coarsening-upward
nature, and horizontal strata often in sharp contrast to IHS beds of
the middle McMurray. It has a sharp, erosive lower contact with the
underlying middle McMurray. There may be a veneer of poorly sorted
fine to coarse sand immediately above the basal contact. This is followed by interbedded sand and dark grey mud grading upward into
fine-grained sand with dark grey mud interlaminae, reportedly with
the presence of glauconite. At least two of these coarsening-upward
units are present, and each may be capped by a rooted horizon. The
upper contact with the Wabiskaw Mbr. is also sharp. Flach and Mossop
(1985) used sedimentology, palynology, and the presence of glauconite to suggest open marine conditions for their upper McMurray marine unit. The unit was interpreted to be an offshore marine bar (Flach,
1984; Flach and Mossop, 1985).
In core, at least two coarsening-up units may be preserved in the
upper part of the McMurray Fm. (Fig. 16), and are probably correlative to those seen in outcrop. They are bounded by regional marine
muds that accumulated on flooding surfaces. These units are referred
to as the Upper C/U (Coarsening-Upward) or Red cycle and the
Lower C/U or Blue cycle. These two cycles are separated from each
other by a thin unit referred to as the Green unit.
Each cycle exhibits a coarsening- and sandier-upward trend,
wherein the occurrence and thickness of sandstone beds increases upwards accompanied by a slight increase in sand grain size. Fully developed cycles are composed of three lithofacies, the 'A', 'B' and 'C'
and may be capped by a rooted organic shale and/or thin coal. Lithofacies A to C successively exhibit greater proportions of sand upward.
Cycles commence with bioturbated regional marine muds of Lithofacies A, grading upward into interbedded, oscillation rippled, sands
and muds of Lithofacies B, (Fig. 15), which finally passes up into swaley, oscillation rippled sands of Lithofacies C. Lithofacies B typically
contains indications of waning flow conditions such as oscillation and Figure 15 upper McMurray oscillation-rippled
combined flow ripples, and graded beds.
The base of a cycle (base of lithofacies 'A') is always sharp and shoreface

23

METRES

GRAIN SIZE

GAMMA RAY

v c mf v

granule
sand
silt
clay

150

BIOTURBATION

AA/10-10-080-07W4
constitutes a flooding
surface. The flooding
surface may be associated with a transgressive surface of erosion,
Top McMurray
demarcated by thin
beds of grit. In some
Upper Coarsening-Up Cycle
(Red Parasequence)
instances, a Glossifungites surface (burrowed exhumed firmground) has been idenTransgressive marine mud
tified at the base of a
Thin trangressive sand at flooding surface.
cycle where heavily
bioturbated siltyprobable marine mud
shales abruptly overlie
flooding surface
Paleosol; very light oxidised shale, abundant
laminated estuarine
rhizoliths.
deposits.
Facies A (the regional marine mud) is
Sand floating in mud. -Trangressive lag; med grained
almost always thorLower Coarsening-Up Cycle
oughly bioturbated
(Blue Parasequence)
with a diverse assemblage of trace fossils
including Teichichnus
and Helminthopsis.
Stratification is typically totally obliterTransgressive marine mud
ated. Facies B and C of
Glossifungites at flooding surface. Medium sand
grains floating in mud at contact
the C/U cycles are disChannel abandonment mud plug
Mud plug continues to 370.2
tinctly different in appearance. The ichno- Figure 16 Coarsening- and sandier-upward parasequences in core from
fossil suites have ex- the upper McMurray.
tremely low diversity,
typically monospecific, and constitute very simple structures. Numbers are extremely low,
often barren. These characteristics are at the opposite pole from any fully marine ichnofacies,
and indicative of some extreme stress in the environment. This stress may be anticipated to be
very low salinities, rapid deposition and/or extreme turbidity (possibly associated with rapid
deposition) However, the presence of abundant synaeresis cracks suggests episodic salinity
fluctuation. The synaeresis cracks are almost invariably present in clayshales that are completely barren of ichnofossils.
The vertical arrangement of lithofacies A through C represents the superposition of proximal through distal shoreface environments. The general upward increase in grain-size, decrease in mud content, observed ichnofaunal suites and progressive change in style of sedimentary structures suggests the aggradation/progradation of a shoreface whose distal environment is clearly marine, but which exhibits increasing stress due to low salinity in the shoreward direction. The bioturbated silty-muds at the base of each cycle (Lithofacies A), were
deposited below fairweather wave base and lie on a marine flooding surface/transgressive
DEEP RESISTIVITY

REMARKS

325
326
327
328
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24

1000

surface of erosion. The upwards increase in occurrence and thickness of sharp-based, parallel-laminated sand beds reflects the progressive increase in intensity of apparently freshwater, flood-derived, currents over time. These currents are thought to have been dominantly
freshwater in composition as they would make environmental conditions very difficult, if not
intolerable, even for the most opportunistic marine organisms. The presence of wave-induced
oscillation ripples and swash cross-stratified sands within lithofacies B and C indicates an
influence from background wave-dominated processes. The cycles are herein tentatively interpreted as shoreface parasequences (Fig. 17) bounded by flooding surfaces, which consist
of mixed fluvial-wave-dominated deltas that prograded into a highstand brackish to marine
bay (bayhead delta?). The synaeresis-cracked clayshales may represent the shoreface above
the salt wedge. The delta would only be exposed to marine water during periods of low
fluvial flow, during storm surges, periods of extreme high spring tides or perhaps during
post-storm oscillation of the salt wedge (Caplin and Ranger, 2001).
The trace fossil assemblage of the upper McMurray is distinct from underlying estuarine
deposits of the middle McMurray, and yet is somewhat inconsistent with what would be
expected from a fully marine shoreface. The trace fossil forms are larger but less abundant
than the estuarine examples, and they appear to have a generally low diversity of forms. The
low diversity and low abundances of trace fossils within these shoreface deposits may result
from a combination of energy and salinity stresses. Fluctuating conditions provide insufficient time for colonization of a substrate resulting in a predominance of physical structures
over biogenic. Furthermore, the basin may never have reached fully marine salinity conditions. This may be due to the restricted nature of the northern part of the basin caused by the
convergence of the Grosmont High in the west and the Canadian Shield in the east. The
continued influx of fresh water from the McMurray Valley System even during highstand sea
level maintained brackish conditions to some degree, and the constriction in the basin prevented rapid dispersion of brackish water into the boreal sea to the north. Therefore the shoreface/delta was deposited within a broad embayment rather than an open coastline.
Overall, the upper McMurray should be interpreted in the context of the transgressive
history of the basin due to rising sea levels. The progradation of a shoreface indicates relative
slowing or a temporary halt to the transFacies Model
gression, probably reupper McMurray Coarsening-Upward Cycles
flecting an increased
sediment supply and
Plan View
Cross Section
Regional
less subsidence in rePrograding Sand Lobe
Marine/Brackish
A
A
Mud
Gamma Ray
lation to eustatic sea
Freshwater plume
ded ud
d
Wave Energy
e
rb
&m
level, i.e. a stillstand
Inte sand
/
silt
Sand
event. This was apBrackish
A
A
Facies
Bay
parently short-lived
Unidirectional
Assoc. C
Waning Flows
Facies Assoc. B
because the immediFacies A
ately succeeding Wabiskaw is indicative
Transgressive Mud at
Maximum flooding
Transgressive surface of erosion
of a basin suddenly
engulfed in fully maFluvial/Wave-Dominated Delta
rine offshore condi 2002 Mike Ranger and Mark Caplin
tions.
Figure 17

25

REGIONAL INTERPRETATION OF THE McMURRAY FORMATION


The previous chapter has outlined the general sedimentology of the three informal units
of the McMurray Fm., the lower, middle and upper members. The boundaries between the
three have always seemed rather fuzzy (hence the lack of a formal stratigraphic subdivision),
and possibly for this reason, it was easy to suggest that the entire McMurray interval represents the development of a single systems tract. The base appearing fluvial, the middle, estuarine, and with evidence of more marine influence towards the top, an overall transgressive system seemed most likely. This simplistic interpretation had become the working model
for the interpretation of the McMurray Fm. and the complexity of facies seemed to preclude
anything more than such a broad-brush approach. The McMurray Fm. is also blessed (some
would say cursed) with an abundance of data over an area of at least 50,000 km2. Tens of
thousands of exploratory wells have been drilled into the McMurray Fm, many with core
recovery, and that does not include thousands of additional closely spaced wells that have
been drilled for commercial recovery of the resource. Most studies have been sponsored by
commercial interests, and therefore focus on relatively small areas, perhaps 1 or 2 townships
at the most, on and around a private lease. The amount of data available, (not to mention the
expense of gaining access to it) made more regional studies prohibitive in time and money.
Most researchers therefore have a detailed knowledge over a small area, but lack a regional
perspective.
In the early 1990's, a thesis study based on digitised data from over 1600 wells in South
Athabasca demonstrated that in the upper part of the McMurray Fm., there exist a series of
regionally correlatable thin parasequences (Fig. 18), 8 to 12 metres in thickness, consisting of
what appeared to be prograding shoreface deposits (Ranger, 1994; Ranger and Pemberton,
1997, Caplin and Ranger, 2001). The shoreface parasequences are bounded by regional marine shale units that were interpreted to represent transgressive marine muds lying on a flooding surface/ transgressive surface of erosion. The three upper stratigraphic units are especially obvious, and were informally termed the red, green and blue intervals, and their
log signature can be recognised sporadically over much of the south Athabasca area (Fig. 18).
The distinct signatures of the three units is not ubiquitous however. It cannot be recognised
in all wells. There are many areas where the signature is anomalous, suggesting that the
shoreface unit has been eroded. A map of the distribution and thickness of one of the shoreface intervals demonstrates this (Fig. 19). The areas in black are areas where the blue signature is anomalous. These anomalous signatures indicate a wide variety of sandy, shaly or
heterogeneous fills which were interpreted broadly as brackish estuarine channel fills (Ranger
1994), although these units have undergone little detailed study.
Incised Valley Fill Systems as a Working Model for the upper McMurray
These observations intuitively seemed to fit well with what is known about incised valley
systems, (Fig. 20), wherein the Athabasca stacked parasequences sets represent prograding
basin fill during highstand conditions, bounded by flooding surfaces. These provide a
correlateable "background" stratigraphy with predictable log signature and facies association. Subsequent sea level drop results in an erosional unconformity and incision into the
parasequence "stack", -i.e. an incised valley, and sequence boundary.
The presence of incised valley fills in South Athabasca is interpreted more by the omission of evidence than by direct observation, however. That is, where the "background' stra-

26

9-13-72-12W4
11-31-73-12W4

"BLUE"

"GREEN"

"RED"

27

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Upper Devonian

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11-15-75-12W4
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Sub Cretaceous
Unconformity

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McMurray Formation

Figure 18

1993 Michael J. Ranger

North-south cross-section across range 12 at one well per township. This cross-section demonstrates
the continuity to the north of the shoreface parasequences in the McMurray Formation in South
Athabasca. The parasequences are designated "Red", "Green" and "Blue". The datum is the top of the
"Blue" parasequence and log curves are gamma-ray logs plotted in mirror image, to facilitate correlation.
Note the existence of additional shale bounded units below the "Blue" parasequence.

4
9
0

4
8
0

4
7
0

4
6
0

4
5
0

4
4
0

14-18-74-12W4

11-32-79-12W4

6-27-71-12W4

6-10-70-12W4

B
North

94.5 kilometres
(59 miles)

South

Wabiskaw
Member

T90
89
88
87
86
85
84
83
82
81

A'

80
79
78
77
76
75
74
73
72
71

A
20

19

18

17

16

15

14

13

12

70

11

10

R4w4

1993 Mike Ranger

Isopach of the "Blue" Parasequence,


McMurray Formation

> 10m
8 - 10m
6 - 8m
4 - 6m
2 - 4m
0 - 2m
shoreface parasequence eroded

Contour Interval: 2m
0

Paleozoic subcrop

Figure 19

28

10
10

20
20

30

miles

30

40
50
kilometres

40
60

50
70

80

tigraphy is missing, the assumption is that these anomalies constitute the incised valley fill. But
to reiterate, whereas the parasequence sets have been wellstudied, at least in core, the supposed incised valley fills have
not. To date the relationship between the supposed incised valley fills and the background
shoreface parasequences has not
been worked out. It has proven
difficult to recognise unconformities or to relate incision events to
a particular stratigraphic horizon.
It is possible that both the 'background' parasequences and the
anomalous intervals are simply
sub-environments of the same
systems tract; for example, distinctive deltaic shoreface pulses
and more heterogeneous interlobe bay fill.
While recognising the uncertainties, a highstand paraFigure 20 Standard model for the development of
sequence/lowstand to transgresan incised valley.
sive incised valley fill system
seems a reasonable model for the
upper part of the McMurray. What about the rest of the McMurray Fm.? Wireline log signatures do seem to suggest that there may be additional highstand parasequences preserved
below the "Blue Parasequence", at least in south Athabasca (Fig. 18). None have been recognised from the middle McMurray outcrops in north Athabasca. The middle McMurray is
known for its thick estuarine channel systems, easily recognised by the almost ubiquitous
presence of sets of IHS point bars, whose architecture makes them easily distinguished in
both core and outcrop. When Flach and Mossop first recognised these for what they are (Flach
and Mossop, 1978; Mossop and Flach, 1983) they raised the question of what the channel
systems may have been incising into. With this in mind, Ranger (1994) speculated that the
development of stacked, prograding shoreface parasequences and their subsequent incision
and destruction may have been the theme of the development history during all of McMurray time. If they are not present now in the middle and lower part of the McMurray, perhaps
that is simply because the highstand parasequences had very poor preservation potential
early in the development of the McMurray Fm. During early McMurray time, the influence of
the sub-Cretaceous unconformity was substantial, and extensive exposed carbonate ridges
separated the McMurray subbasin into long narrow valleys. Channels would therefore have
been more confined early in the depositional history of the McMurray Formation and it is
likely that the channels would destroy all or most of any existing highstand shoreface by
migrating from valley wall to valley wall.

29

Incised Valley
System

Highstand Shoreface Complex

Basinward Configuration

Carbonate "Basement"

Strike Configuration
Highstand Systems

Lowstand & Transgressive Systems

Stacked, prograding,
brackish shoreface
(Parasequences)

Fluvial - estuarine channel


and channel fill complex

Schematic Depositional Model for the


Lower Cretaceous McMurray Formation
2000 Michael J. Ranger

Figure 21 Incised Valley Fill model for the upper McMurray. Can it be extrapolated to explain
the entire McMurray succession as shown here? Narrow valleys may explain why no highstand
shoreface parasequences are preserved.

Later, as the valleys in the basin became filled and the carbonate ridges were buried, shoreface deposits would have had much wider areal development, and thus more potential for
preservation from destruction due to lowstand erosion and incision. This notion is summarised in Figure 21. Could it be that facies associations of the middle McMurray are the expression of Incised Valley fill systems, and there really is a developmental continuum through the
entire McMurray Fm., modified only by preservational potential? It can be observed on the
distribution map of the blue parasequence (Fig. 19), for example, that preservation of the
upper McMurray shoreface parasequences is significantly poorer in the north than in the
south. Perhaps they have been totally eradicated from the record by compound incised valley
fills that dominate the system increasingly towards the north, and therefore in the north Athabasca area in general one is left only with the complex of channel systems with no background stratigraphic framework.
Middle McMurray: Incised Valley Fill or Progading Tide-Dominated Delta?
The middle McMurray has been the unit most studied in outcrop, mainly because it is the
best exposed, has relatively easy accessibility, and it contains the best reservoir facies. In the

30

previous chapter, we subdivided the middle McMurray into two dominant facies associations: FA1, thick bedsets of sigmoidal, megarippled sand with rare but unequivocal marine
trace fossil suites and abundant tidal indicators; and FA2, muddy to sandy channel deposits,
dominated by IHS point bar architecture, and generally fingerprinted with a brackish trace
fossil suite. In previous studies (Mossop and Flach, 1983) including more recent work
(Langenberg et al., 2002) these two facies associations were believed to be gradational into
one another such that the megarippled sands of FA1 (trough cross-bedded facies of other
studies) represent large dune bed forms in the deepest part of a channel, and FA2 (IHS beds)
represent lateral accretion of point bars into the same channel. Therefore FA1 and FA2 were
thought to be elements of the same genetic unit.
It is true that these two facies association are always closely related, and where present,
FA2 always overlies FA1. Yet they are not gradational into one another. Where exposed in
outcrop, the contact between these two facies associations is almost always seen to be separated
by a sharp, often erosional,
discontinuity (Fig. 22). We
have already pointed out
that FA1 contains strong
marine indicators and is
not likely part of a brackish estuarine channel. If
FA1 can be interpreted to
be a high tidal energy,
outer estuary, and FA2 is
a middle estuary channel
system, then the relationship between the two
would seem to be progra- Figure 22 FA2 (middle estuary IHS point bar) in erosional contact with
dational and therefore re- FA1 (outer estuary tidal bar complex). FA1 is not simply the basal channel
gressive. The erosional facies of the IHS channel, but is separated from it by a Regressive Surface
contact between the two of Erosion.
is therefore probably a
Regressive Surface of Erosion. An unconformable contact is unlikely, since in at least one
location, slump blocks of FA2 are seen to be entrained in FA1 directly at the contact, a feature
difficult to explain by a process of exhumation.
Such a progradational succession is in conflict with what we know about the internal
architecture of modern (and other ancient) estuary/incised valley fills. In such systems an
incised valley fill is seen to be a Transgressive Systems Tract. i.e. progressively more basinward facies, punctuated by ravinement surfaces, fill the valley vertically from the outer through
middle part of the valley system, up to some maximum flooding surface (Fig. 23). This is in
direct contrast to what we observe in the McMurray Fm. Our observations show that the
McMurray Fm. was a strongly prograding body in an open valley system. FA1 is always
erosionally or abruptly overlain by FA2. This suggests that FA2 is strongly progradational
and developed in a low accommodation-space basin. Furthermore, the ubiquitous presence
of FA2 over FA1 suggests that together they represent a sedimentological succession, not

31

Incised Valley System


Marine

Segment 1

Segment 2

Segment 3

Non-Incised

Shelf Ramp

Outer IVS

Middle IVS

Inner IVS

Fluvial

Central Basin

HST Shoreline

Bayhead Delta

HST Fluvial

TST Fluvial
Transgressive Surface
Barrier/Inlet
LST Shoreline

Tidal Ravinement
Surfaces

LST Fluvial

Sequence Boundary

Bayhead Diastem

Tidal Ravinement Surfaces


Wave Ravinement Surface
Transgressive Surface

Zaitlin et al. 1994

Systems
Tract

Tide-Dominated Estuary

Transgressive
to
Highstand

Sequence Boundary
Lowstand

Ravinement Surface

Tidal sand
bars

Alluvial
deposits

Flooding Surface

Inner straight
Tidal
tidal-fluvial meanders

UFR
sandflats

Transgressive
shelf deposits

Dalrymple et al. 1992

Figure 23

Established models for Incised Valley Systems. IVS systems tracts are known to be
transgressive in nature up to a maximum flooding surface. Middle McMurray facies associations do
not appear to be part of a transgressive system, but rather regressive and progradational.

genetically distinct channel-fill complexes. Furthermore, the erosional contact between them,
as well as the ichnofossil evidence would indicate that they are not elements of a single channel. The architectural relationship between FA1 and FA2 is explained by linking them as depositional elements of a tide-dominated delta that originated in the valley low and prograded
basinward. Thus FA1 represents strongly tidal-influenced outer estuarine sediments, and FA2
middle estuarine distributary channels.
This may indeed be an unusual example of a regressive rather than transgressive incised
valley fill given a low accommodation, high sedimentation system. But the classification may

32

Delta front

Tidal bars/distributaries
(outer estuary)

Marsh/Tidal flat
Estuarine point bars
(middle estuary)

Tidal limit

Fluvial point bars


(inner estuary)

Figure 24 Depositional model for the middle McMurray Fm. in North Athabasca. Prograding
tide-dominated deltas developed in valleys entrenched in the sub-Cretaceous unconformity. The
deltaic deposits are mainly estuarine in nature.

then be one purely of semantics, since almost by definition such a prograding system would
be a delta (Fig. 24).
Fluvial - Inner Estuary
If FA1 and FA2 represent the outer and middle segment of an estuarine system, it is fair to
ask if an inner estuary/fluvial environment is exposed in the McMurray outcrops. A coarsegrained, apparently fluvial channel crops out along the east bank of the Athabasca River near
the boundary between Twp 95 & 96 (Fig. 25) The channel incises dramatically into an IHS
point bar system that is capped with a marsh-paleosol unit. The channel is approximately 170
m in apparent width, both sides being well exposed on the banks of the Athabasca River.
Paleocurrent measurements indicate flow towards the north-northeast, with point bars dip-

33

NORTH

34

north of Daphne Island. Channel incision is indicated in black. The channel fill consists of coarse grained point bars, and
incises into middle estuary IHS point bar deposits.

Figure 25 North-south panorama of a fluvial channel exposed along the Athabasca River (east bank) at Twp 95-96 just

SOUTH

ping approximately towards the east. (If flow was towards the NNE, the outcrop is not parallel to the channel cross-section, and the actual channel width is calculated to be about half the
apparent width, i.e. about 85 m). Other similar coarse-grained channel deposits crop out in
the nearby area along the banks of the Athabasca River. In some places these channel deposits
can be seen to interfinger with the marsh-paleosol unit that is incised by the main channel.
Therefore these units appear to be somewhat contemporaneous (or at least overlap in time)
and, we suggest, indicates progradation of an inner estuary fluvial environment into the middle estuary.
Wabiskaw
The contact of the upper McMurray with the overlying Wabiskaw Mbr of the Clearwater
Formation is a low-relief, erosive contact probably representing a transgressive wave ravinement erosional surface. Where preserved, the Wabiskaw sand/silt is a thin, glauconitic, fining-upward unit. It contains an abundant and diverse suite of large trace fossils, indicative of
fully marine offshore conditions (Fig. 26). The
Wabiskaw in Northern Athabasca is probably a
thin reworked transgressive deposit. Overlying
interbedded silt and shale of the lower Clearwater Formation shows the influence of storms,
and was probably deposited within the middle
to lower offshore. The Wabiskaw has a sharp,
apparently erosive lower contact with the underlying upper McMurray and in some areas is
associated with a Glossifungites ichnofacies
(Bechtel, 1996).

Figure 26 Typical examples of bioturbation from the Wabiskaw Mbr. (Clearwater Fm.), which overlies the
McMurray Fm. (A: outcrop; B: core) Trace fossils are large, robust, numerous and diverse, in stark contrast
to the typically impoverished assemblages observed in the McMurray Fm.

Sequence Stratigraphic Model


The sequence stratigraphic model proposed for the North Athabasca area is summarised
in a series of time slices shown in Fig. 27 on the following page.

35

SOUTH

NORTH
TSE

SB

TSE

RSE

H. Sequence Boundary.
Unconformity at top of McMurray Fm.
Deposition of storm-dominated distal
shoreface/proximal offshore. (Wabiskaw Mbr.)

TSE

RSE
SB

TSE
TSE

RSE

G. Sea Level Drop & Sequence Boundary(?).


Development of prograding shoreface.
Distinctive dark shales suggest basin becomes
somewhat anoxic.

TSE

RSE
SB
prograding shoreface

flooding surfaces

RSE

TSE

RSE
SB

RSE

F. Sea Level Rise - transgression.


Development of coarsening/sandier upward
shoreface parasequences, capped by rooted
paleosol horizons. Apparent evolution of basin
to wave/storm-dominated deltaic systems.
upper McMurray Fm.

E. Further development of tide-dominated


delta. Extensive progradation of middle
estuary channels.

TSE

RSE
SB

TSE
RSE
SB

RSE
SB

Tidal Bar Complex


SB

SB
TSE: Transgressive Surface of Erosion

RSE: RegressiveSurface of Erosion

D. Sea Level Rise - transgression.


Subsequent progradational development of
second parasequence. Incipient tidal bar
complex of tide-dominated delta.

C. Further development of tide-dominated


delta. Extensive progradation of middle estuary
channels which truncate tidal bar complex.
(Regressive Surface of Erosion)

B. Early Transgressive Systems Tract.


Development of prograding parasequence.
Tidal Bar Complex of tide-dominated delta
(incipient estuary system of
middle McMurray)

A. Aggradational Parasequence Set.


Early fluvial of lower McMurray

SB: Sequence Boundary


2003 Michael J. Ranger, Murray K. Gingras

Figure 27

36

MODERN PHYSIOGRAPHIC ANALOGUES FOR THE


McMURRAY ESTUARINE SYSTEM
Chesapeake Bay
Chesapeake Bay may be a reasonable modern analogue for the McMurray estuarine system (at least the upper McMurray), primarily because of its size and geomorphology. Although the mouth of Chesapeake Bay is open to the high wave energy marine environment of
the North Atlantic Ocean, the morphology of the Bay is such that directly landward of its
mouth, the main channel turns abruptly north, so it is sheltered from much of the wave energy of the open Atlantic (Fig. 28).
The entire Chesapeake Bay estuarine system is a drowned system of stream valleys which
evolved during the last glacial stage of the Pleistocene. Similar to the McMurray system, the
bay proper follows a master valley (Fig. 29), which developed from both consequent and
subsequent valleys. Modern bay sediments partially fill these valleys so that the bottom topography of Chesapeake Bay is simply a modification of the ancient valley topography. The
accumulation of muds has been primarily in the central channel.
Siltation of the minor tributaries and reentrants is probably related to the tidal movement.

O C E
A N

N
DISMAL
SWAMP

Isopach of the McMurray Formation


(30m and 50m contours)

58

N
CAPE HENRY

37

Jam

es

CAPE CHARLES

Easte

River
Yo
r

rn M

argin

A T
L A
N T
I C

ve

Ri

Erod

ck
no

1992 Michael J. Ranger


Ri

ve

38

57

ed

Rap
pah
an

TO

PO

C
RI

VE

Pa

tux

en

tR

56

WASHINGTON

39

AR
W
LA

DE
BALTIMORE

VE

RI
na

ha

ue

sq

Su
R.

55

Comparison of the McMurray estuarine system with modern Chesapeake Bay


to common scale demonstrating size and morphology

Figure 28

37

0
0

10
20

miles
20
30

40

40
60
kilometres

50
80

Suspended silt and clay are driven into these areas during high tide. Because these are areas
of relatively stagnant water, deposition takes place and mud accumulates.
Since the close of the Pleistocene epoch, the rate of sedimentation has not been uniform
throughout the bay. The Southern Bay valley has been about 90 per cent filled, the Mid-Bay
valley has been about 50 per cent filled, and the Northern Bay valley has been about 80 per
cent filled.
The main source of sediments in the northern
bay area is the Susquehanna River. In the past, an
enormous volume of shore-eroded material has
been removed from the western shore of the midbay area and probably makes up a large portion
of mid-bay bottom sediments. The Atlantic Ocean
and the large rivers discharging into the southern bay area are the main sources of southern bay
sediments. The largest quantities are probably
from the Atlantic Ocean and the Potomac River.
The total volume of sediment that has been
deposited in Chesapeake Bay since the close of
the Pleistocene is about 61,150,000,000 cubic
yards. Assuming that the last glaciers began their
retreat about 10,000 years ago, an average of
6,115,000 cubic yards of sediment has been deposited in the bay each year (Folger, 1972).
Sediment distribution maps (Fig. 30) show that
at the present day the finest sediments are deposited in centre of the channel valleys, becoming
coarser towards the banks. This indicates that at
present, the overall depositional system is coarsening upwards and progradational. At present sea
level is increasing and approaching a high stand.
In relation to the McMurray estuarine system this
would be equivalent to the development of progradational shoreface parasequences, as recognised in South Athabasca, and perhaps analogous
to the upper McMurray in northern Athabasca.
Subsurface studies of Chesapeake Bay have
shown that there are at least three Quaternary incised valley paleochannel systems (Fig. 31, 32) beneath the present bay (Colman et al., 1990), analogous to the incised valley systems currently recognised at Aurora (middle McMurray, "Marine
Channel" and "Marine Transition").
Chesapeake Bay has also been studied with
respect to the effects of major storms, in particular that of tropical storm Agnes in 1972 (Chesapeake Research Consortium Inc., 1976). The
Chesapeake Bay watershed received rainfall in exFigure 29

38

Figure 30

Figure 31

39

Figure 32

cess of five inches with many areas receiving more than twelve inches of water over a three
day period of June, 1972. This resulted in immediate flooding of the major tributaries of Chesapeake Bay, the Susquehanna, Potomac, Rappahannock, York and James Rivers. Most rivers
crested at levels higher than previously ever recorded. The Susquehanna River had flows
averaging 15.5 times greater than normal.
The immediate effect on the estuary was that of the salinities (Fig. 33). Initially, flood
waters displaced surface salinities downstream several miles while bottom salinities remained
somewhat constant, producing highly stratified estuaries. After a time lag of a few days bottom salinities shifted downstream as well, resulting in vertically homogeneous estuaries of
very low salinity.
Recovery due to a gravitational density reaction followed, causing net transport of salt
water up the estuaries. This recovery started as a basal wedge, but eventually included surface water and moved salt water upstream substantially beyond the pre-storm position. Tributaries to the bay were subjected to internal oscillations in salinity, dissolved oxygen and suspended sediment over periods of four to fifteen days. The entire biological community was
disrupted to some degree. Sessile bottom dwelling biota experienced severe mortalities. Eventually vertical mixing between surface and bottom water resulted in a salinity profile through
Chesapeake Bay similar to normal conditions. But total recovery took over 100 days (Chesapeake Research Consortium Inc., 1976).

40

Gironde Estuary
Another modern analogue that
has been relatively better studied
than Chesapeake Bay (perhaps because it is much smaller and physiographically less complex) is the
Gironde estuary.
The Gironde estuary has also
formed in a drowned Pleistocene incised fluvial valley. It is presently being filled mostly by fluvial sediment, in a mixed tide/wave dominant estuarine environment. The
Gironde estuary has the typical
threefold geomorphology of: 1) a
mixed fluvial/tidal upper estuary
with meandering channels and tidal
point bars; 2) a tide-dominated, funnel-shaped middle to lower estuary
with non-erosional muddy channels
and elongate sandy tidal bars; and
3) a wave and tide-influenced inlet
with sandy coastal barriers and tidal
delta shoals. (Allen, 1991)
Tidal effects can occur as far as
130 km landward from the estuary
mouth. The fluvial sediment load is
primarily deposited in the upper esFigure 33
tuary channels. A turbidity maximum exists in which suspended
sediment is trapped. The turbidity
maximum migrates longitudinally within the estuary depending on river flow. Only finegrained sand enters the estuary from the river system. Coarser sands and gravels are blocked
by tidal currents.
Facies distribution in the Gironde depends on the morphology of the estuary (Fig. 34).
The upper estuary comprises sandy and muddy estuarine point bars. Here, there are no alluvial levee and crevasse splay deposits, because tidal flow in the estuary attenuates fluvial
floods. The lower estuary is marked by a transition from point bars to tidal bars that prograde
seaward over estuarine mud. The estuary inlet contains coarse sand with tide and wave structures. These sands are of marine origin and are introduced into the estuary from the coast by
longshore drift and flood tidal currents. They form the transgressive Holocene substratum
over which accumulates the present regressive estuarine wedge.
These facies patterns are easily recognizable in cores and outcrops and may provide analogue criteria to help delimit paleogeographic boundaries in cores from the McMurray of
North Athabasca. They may also provide stratigraphic markers to identify and correlate the
different phases of an estuarine valley fill.

41

Figure 34

42

STRUCTURE OF THE NORTH ATHABASCA AREA


There are several elements that contribute to what appears to be a complex structural
history of the area (see Fig. 6). In general, the entire North Athabasca region is structurally
elevated. This is partially due to its position near the edge of the basin, sitting on the relatively stable craton of the Canadian Shield relative to the homoclinal Laramide subsidence of
the Late Cretaceous/Early Tertiary. But it may also have experienced some uplift due to activity along the Peace River Arch. North Athabasca is directly on trend with the axis of the
structural elements of the Peace River Arch.
Dissolution of underlying Devonian evaporites (mainly salt) is a well documented feature along the eastern edge of the Western Canada Basin. Effects of this process can be observed to have occurred more or less continuously in time along the eastern edge of the basin
as a whole, since at least early Cretaceous. Regionally, however, not all areas have experienced the effects continuously or contemporaneously. It appears that salt dissolution in north
Athabasca was more or less complete by Lower Mannville time. This can be demonstrated by
the fact that structural rollover due to salt dissolution plays the major role in the trapping
mechanism along the eastern edge of Athabasca Deposit in South Athabasca, whereas in the
north, bitumen has accumulated far to the east of the present day edge of salt solution collapse (Fig. 35A). North of about township 90, almost all of the salt dissolution and consequent structural collapse apparently occurred before Mannville time. Therefore any preexisting structural collapse would probably have simply been expressed as topographic lows providing accommodation space during accumulation of the McMurray. The overlying Wabiskaw shale which forms the seal is relatively flat and did not experience the dip reversal seen
in the south (Fig. 35B). Furthermore, no deep wells in North Athabasca have penetrated a
significant accumulation of evaporite in the Devonian. (There are however saline springs
coming to surface in at least one location -on the east shore of Saline Lake just east of the
Athabasca River, and immediately north of the mouth of the Steepbank River.)
At the local scale the major structural element affecting the elevation of the sub-Cretaceous Unconformity is the erosional topography that resulted from the drainage systems that
incised the Devonian bedrock up until the continent-wide increases in sea level of the Lower
Cretaceous. The trunk valleys of these drainage systems were evidently themselves controlled in large part by the trend of structural collapse due to salt dissolution. This erosional
topography obviously played the dominant role in the thickness and facies distribution of
the lower McMurray, which sits directly on the unconformity. One may also surmise that it
also played a role in the distribution of facies in the younger middle and upper McMurray
units due to differential compaction of the underlying valley fill. No doubt the effects of the
sub-Cretaceous Unconformity diminish as younger units accumulated, but its effects are all
always a debatable point, and difficult to quantify.
Because of the overwhelming influence of the erosional topography on the structure of
the sub-Cretaceous Unconformity, other effects are difficult to differentiate from this structure map alone (Fig. 36). There does appear to be a large, anomalous, structural low (Bitumount Basin) centred around Twp 96 Rng 11W4. The structural low is reflected in the Wabiskaw surface as well. Of course Wabiskaw structure only reflects structural history of the
basin subsequent to Wabiskaw deposition. Earlier structural history can be implied by the
fact that evaporite dissolution appears to be complete before Mannville time, and the Lower
Mannville appears to be overthickened in the Bitumount Basin. The Wabiskaw structure in-

43

3
9
8
7
6

E
EDG

44
5
4

T 100

3 2 R1w4

T 70

T 71

T 72

T 73

T 74

T 75

T 76

T 77

T 78

T 79

T 80

T 81

T 82

T 83

T 84

T 85

T 86

T 87

T 88

T 89

T 90

T 91

T 92

T 93

T 94

T 95

T 96

A' T 97

T 98

T 99

Figure 35A

air

ie

200

C
re

am

br

Pleistocene

150

B
ian

me

nt

Kilometres

e
as

Wabiskaw

100

Upper Mannville

50

sea level

Figure 35B

A'

-400

1993 Michael J. Ranger

Structural cross-section through the Athabasca reservoir at location AA. Trapping mechanism along the northeastern edge of the reservoir
was probably stratigraphic. Upper Mannville Clearwater shale onlapped
the Precambrian basement, sealing the reservoir. Structural collapse due
to salt dissolution of the Prairie Evaporite occurred before deposition of
the McMurray-Wabiskaw reservoir rocks, and therefore did not play a
role in the trapping mechanism in the northeast.

250

Pr

a
Ev

it
or

McMurray

Athabasca
River Valley

BITUMEN SATURATED

OVERLYING WATER
(DEPLETED GAS LEG)

STRATIGRAPHIC
SEAL

;;;;;;;
;;;;;
;;;;;;;
;;;;;
;;;;;;;
;;;;;

Metres
0
-200

2 1w5 26 25 24 23 22 21 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11 10

T 102
T 101

200

Outline of the Athabasca Oil Sands Deposit. East of the salt


solution edge, structural collapse has produced a roll-over structure that
forms the trap in the southern part of the deposit. The northern part of
the deposit extends beyond the salt solution edge and was probably
stratigraphically trapped.

Athabasca Deposit

Ft. McMurray

T 104
T 103

Lower
Cretaceous
Mannville
Group
DEVONIAN

ON
Upper
Devonian

SE
AP
L
L
CO

400

Middle
Devonian

OL
SA L T S
I
UT

600

dicates that it underwent at least 50m+ of structural collapse in the Bitumount Basin. This
structural collapse can also be seen in outcrop. Along the Athabasca River, just north of the
mouth of the Ells River immediately East of MicMac, the Wabiskaw Member locally crops
out at river bank level (Fig. 37). This is considerably lower structurally than in any other
known outcrop along the Athabasca River.
The structural elevation of the basal bitumen-water contact is also useful as an aid in
studying the structural history of the region (Fig. 38). For this one must rely on the reasonable
implication that the bitumen-water contact was originally a flat-lying, conventional oil-water contact that has been frozen in place due to degradation and conversion of the oil into
heavy, viscous bitumen. After the bitumen has become fixed in stratigraphic position, any
structural movement in the basin is reflected in the bitumen-water contact by displacement
from horizontal. A map of the structure of the bitumen-water contact, not surprisingly, shows

290

240

96
190
0

220

23

21

220

240

11

24

Datum: sea level


Contour Interval: 10m
Aurora/ O SL O

94 270

260

10

Structural Elevation of the


Sub-Cretaceous Unconformity

280

26

95

8
250
200
150
100

300m
250m
200m
150m

1997 Michael J. Ranger

Figure 36

1998 M.J. Ranger

many structural irregularities. Over much of North Athabasca, the bitumen-water contact
lies at an elevation of approximately 210 to 220 metres above sea level, but trending somewhat higher towards the east (Fig. 38). Over the Bitumount Basin in the northwest, the contact drops to generally around 190 m, but as low as 121 m at the well AB01249611. Similarly in
east Aurora there exists an anomalous structural low in section 5 and 8, T96, R11W4. Here
also the bitumen-water contact drops to just below 190 m (apparently corresponding to a
subtle low on the Sub-Cretaceous Unconformity). In these areas the timing of the structural

45

collapse is further restricted in time to no earlier than the time of degradation of the bitumen.
This was probably at approximately the end of Upper Cretaceous time, very early in the
history of the Laramide Orogeny (Ranger, 1994).

Figure 37 Outcrop of the Wabiskaw Member on the Athabasca River


Glauconitic marine siltstone of the Wabiskaw Member is exposed along the shoreline of the Athabasca River near the eastern border of the MicMac lease site. The Wabiskaw is exposed here at
river level, and marks the southern extent of the "Bitumount Basin".

One question presents itself: what has caused the structural collapse in the North Athabasca area? Generally this has been relegated to dissolution of underlying Devonian evaporites. However, no evaporites have been found in deep wells in North Athabasca and, as discussed previously, it appears that dissolution under the Aurora area (and probably much of
north Athabasca) was complete no later than the time of oil migration, trapping and degradation. Yet structural collapse has affected the bitumen-water interface. Furthermore the structural collapse observed is quite localised, which is typical of what would be expected early in
the dissolution history of an area. In later or final stages one might expect isolated pinnacles
rather than isolated lows. Differential thickness of evaporite causing differential structural
collapse has also been proposed. The most likely occurrence of this would probably involve
reefs and bioherms, but here once again, one might expect residual structurally high pinnacles, rather than the observed residual lows. Two possibilities may be periodic Karsting of
underlying Devonian carbonate surfaces or localised basement faulting such as small grabens.

46

47

Figure 38

THE TIMING AND MECHANISM OF


OIL MIGRATION AND TRAPPING
IN THE ATHABASCA OIL SANDS DEPOSIT
Introduction
Considering that the Athabasca Oil Sands Deposit constitutes what is probably the largest
single hydrocarbon accumulation on earth, there is surprisingly little agreement on its migration and trapping mechanisms or the timing of these events. The aspect that has received the
most attention in recent years is the source of the hydrocarbons (du Rouchet, 1985; Moshier
and Waples, 1985; Brooks et al., 1988; Brooks et al., 1989; Creaney and Allan, 1990; Allan and
Creaney, 1991; Creaney and Allan, 1992). Studies of biomarkers appear to pin down the source
beds as dominantly Jurassic in age, with possibly some contribution from source rocks of
Triassic and Mississippian age (Allan and Creaney, 1991; Creaney and Allan, 1992). This implies that long distance migration has occurred from a source in the west to a trap in the east,
since it is only in the foreland basin trough that potential source beds have been buried deeply
enough (Fig. 39). This theory for the origin for the oil sands is not unanimously accepted, and
historically in fact has been one of the least acceptable source theories (Corbett, 1955a, 1955b).
Various other theories include in-situ formation of bitumen (Ball, 1935; Hume, 1951; Corbett,
1955a, 1955b), leaking from underlying Paleozoic reef reservoirs (Sproule, 1938, 1955) and
mechanical deposition of the tars eroded from underlying Devonian bitumen (Link, 1951a).
These various theories are briefly discussed here.
Previous theories
In Situ Source Theory
At one time it was suggested that the bitumen is an immature oil that was sourced from
organic matter contained in the enclosing reservoir rocks (Ball, 1935; Hume, 1951; Corbett,
1955a, 1955b). A possible alternative chemical source was thought to be humic acids in rivers
that existed contemporaneously with deposition of the reservoir rocks (Corbett, 1955a, 1955b).
This theory is all but discounted today based on modern studies of petroleum geochemistry
and organic maturation. The Athabasca bitumens are not "immature" oils, but degraded conventional oils (Deroo et al., 1977), and the reservoir rocks and surrounding possible source
shales have not experienced conditions necessary for formation of oil (HacqueBard, 1977). It
is certainly possible however, that some of the associated gas is biogenic in origin, obviating
the need for deeply buried source.
Leaky Reef Theory
With the discovery in the late 1940's of major petroleum reservoirs in Paleozoic reefs underlying and downdip from the Athabasca Deposit, it was suggested that the Athabasca bitumens are the result of oil breaching these reef reservoirs and accumulating in the overlying
Lower Cretaceous sands (Sproule, 1938, 1955). The problem with this theory is that mass
volumes are totally inadequate. However it is possible that reefs near the sub-Cretaceous
unconformity constitute part of the migration path (du Rouchet, 1985). There is commonly no
seal between porous carbonates that subcrop at the unconformity and overlying sand reservoirs, and many of these porous carbonates are themselves bitumen reservoirs.

48

49

Figure 39

Eroded Devonian Tar Theory


Bitumen deposits hosted by Devonian carbonates subcrop at the sub-Cretaceous unconformity. Some researchers have suggested that these deposits were eroded during Lower Cretaceous exposure, and subsequently deposited along with regular sediments (Link, 1951a,
1951b, 1954). This theory is untenable because the bitumen, although presently having a density equal to or slightly greater than water, displays a conventional reservoir relationship,
that is, gas overlies bitumen which overlies water. The few rare exceptions to this relationship
can easily be explained by the fact that the bitumen is presently immobile at reservoir conditions, and an overlying "paleo-gas cap" has breached its seal and been displaced by water.
Furthermore, maturation studies have suggested that by far the dominant period of oil formation in the Western Canada Basin is during major subsidence during the Late Cretaceous
(Deroo et al., 1977), long after exposure of the Devonian reservoirs at the unconformity. The
bitumen therefore must have accumulated as a conventional oil with density less than water,
not as blebs of eroded tar.
Long Distance Migration Theory
It is generally accepted today that the bitumen in the Athabasca Deposit originated from
source beds downdip in the western foreland basin as these beds subsided through oil window conditions (Deroo et al., 1977; Creaney and Allan, 1990; Creaney and Allan, 1992). They
then underwent long distance migration to the east, there to be trapped as conventional oils.
These conventional oils were then degraded to higher density, high viscosity bitumen through
water-washing and/or bacterial activity (Deroo et al., 1977; Brooks et al., 1988) Thus, despite
its size, no extraordinary mechanism or chemistry need be invoked to account for the accumulation. This theory is not a modern development however. Gussow (1955) came to essentially the same conclusions early in the debate on bitumen origin. Much of the modern evidence for the source of the bitumen confirms his earlier conclusions.
This short, historical review of the source theories does not do justice to the reasoning,
discussion and evidence presented at the time of espousal of the various theories. For detailed reviews of the history of ideas on the origin of the Athabasca Deposit see Coneybear
(1966), Vigrass (1968) and DeMaison (1977).
Western Source Beds
Based purely on structural relationships Gussow (1955) came to the conclusion that the
source beds of the oil sands were primarily Jurassic in age, with possible contributions from
shales of Triassic, Permo-Pennsylvanian and Mississippian age. A primarily Triassic source,
with some possible contribution from Jurassic shales, has been suggested for the Peace River
Oil Sands Deposit and, by extension, for all of the Cretaceous oil sands deposits (du Rouchet,
1985). The Lower Cretaceous shales have been suggested as possible source beds for the oil
sands (Deroo et al., 1973; Deroo et al., 1977; Hacquebard, 1977), given that they are the same
age as the reservoir rocks and are thus stratigraphically directly downdip from the reservoir.
Allan and Creaney (1991) have determined that the Lower Cretaceous Joli Fou Shale (Fig. 2)
is a regional seal isolating reservoir systems above and below it from each other. Therefore
the only possible Lower Cretaceous source beds must be confined to the Mannville Group
directly underlying the Joli Fou shale. However Moshier and Waples (1985) showed that even
using very optimistic assumptions, the Mannville Group could not have generated the volume of hydrocarbons known to exist in the oil sands deposits of Alberta.
The geochemical classification of oils by Deroo et al. (1977), and more recent work by

50

Allan and Creaney (1991), who used biomarkers to fingerprint oils and source beds throughout the Western Canada Basin, have divided the oils of the basin into distinct families. Correlation of these geochemical families to source rock geochemistry, and recognition of discrete
reservoir systems constitute persuasive evidence that the source of the Lower Cretaceous oil
sands and heavy oils is primarily the Jurassic Nordegg Member, and the Mississippian Exshaw shale.
Migration Mechanism
The driving mechanism of fluid migration for the precursor oils of the oil sands has been
a controversial issue. There are two competing theories for the migration mechanism: compaction causing expulsion of water and oil either as separate phase or in miscible solution
(Gussow, 1955; Vigrass, 1968; DeMaison, 1977) and topographically driven hydrodynamic
flow (DeMaison, 1977; Hitchon, 1984; Garven, 1989). The hydrodynamic model depends on
the establishment of thrusting and basin uplift (Laramide orogeny) in the west, which established the Rocky Mountains and formed a hydraulic head for the major recharge area in the
foreland basin.
Timing
The timing of hydrocarbon generation and migration in the Athabasca Deposit must be
discussed in relation to the timing of the Late Cretaceous-Early Tertiary Laramide orogeny,
because it is the initiation of the Laramide that produced the deep burial of potential source
beds and initiated compaction water flow. Its culmination in the Paleocene caused the uplift
in the west to produce the topography that would have made possible basin wide hydrodynamic flow. It is probable that little hydrocarbon generation took place much before Laramide, because potential source beds would not have been buried deeply enough to be exposed to temperatures that would initiate organic diagenesis (Deroo et al., 1977).
Gussow (1955) deduced that migration and trapping in the Lloydminster heavy oil fields,
and by extension the oil sands deposits, took place no later than Lea Park (Campanian) time
based on an analysis of solution gas saturation pressures. Secondary migration would have
been driven by compaction dewatering and buoyancy effects, because little or no Laramide
uplift existed at this time to provide a hydraulic head to drive a hydrodynamic basin system.
The hydrodynamic migration model of Garven (1989) would require secondary migration
and trapping to have commenced no earlier than Paleocene when Laramide uplift provided
the topography to drive a basin wide hydrodynamic system. Once established, however hydrodynamic drive for petroleum migration under this model could have continued through
late Tertiary until Pliocene time when the regional flow system was disrupted by erosion.
Trapping Mechanism
The trapping mechanism for the bitumen in the Athabasca Deposit has also been a controversial topic for many years. The vast size of the deposit did not allow the recognition of a
trapping mechanism until many wells had been drilled into the deposit providing a structural data base. In fact Corbett (1955b) used the apparent lack of recognition of a trap as
evidence for the in-situ theory of bitumen accumulation as immature oil. Gussow (1955) refused to accept the theory, preferring long distance migration and therefore suggested the
existence of a stratigraphic trap. Vigrass (1968) recognised the existence of an updip rollover
and reversal of dip from the regional southwest dipping homoclinal structure of the top of
the reservoir. This rollover is now a well known feature of the structural setting and is attrib-

51

uted to dissolution of underlying salt from the Middle Devonian Prairie Evaporite. Its existence and proximity to the eastern limit of the bitumen suggests that anticlinal structural closure provided at least part of the trapping mechanism.
The problem with invoking a purely structural trapping mechanism is that bitumen is
known to be trapped downdip on the southwestern flank of the anticline at least 500 metres
below the level of a distinct bitumen/water contact that exists on the opposite flank of the
anticline. It is this that has led to the common belief that structural trapping is not sufficient
and that there must be a significant stratigraphic component to the mechanism (DeMaison,
1977). As an alternative, Mossop (1980b) suggested that oil initially migrating updip would
have undergone biodegradation very early in its migration history, forming a bitumen plug
that prevented further fluid displacement, and creating an updip seal to the trap. Masters
(1984) suggested that the trap was entirely structural, and that the anomalies in the distribution of the bitumen are due to structural deformation of the trap after the oil was degraded
and "frozen" in place.
Latest Theory
The Nature of the Bitumen/Water Contact
Routine regional mapping of the bitumen/water contact at the base of the Athabasca Deposit led to new evidence relevant to all three topics discussed above, that is the migration,
timing and trapping of the bitumen deposits in the Athabasca Deposit (Ranger 1994). There
exists a discrete bitumen/water contact under much of the eastern and southwestern portion
of the Athabasca Deposit. This contact appears to be a single continuous horizon with only a
few rare exceptions where some wells appear to indicate local multiple stacked reservoirs
with two or more bitumen/water contacts. The bitumen/water contact is easily recognised
on geophysical logs, especially on the deep resistivity response where it is indicated by either
a sharp or gradual drop in resistivity over a porous reservoir sand. The SP log is also useful,
indicating the contact by an increase in potential over water saturated porous sands. In wells
where the contact horizon intersects a shale facies, the exact depth of the contact cannot easily
be determined, but its existence is evident by bitumen saturated sands above the shale and
water saturated sands below.
The structural elevation of the bitumen/water contact is not horizontal on a regional scale
(Fig. 40). A first order observation of its attitude indicates a distinct southwesterly dip in
southwest Athabasca, rising gradually to the north to arch over the Ft. McMurray Area (Township 90). The contact intersects the unconformity over much of the northwest and west-central part of the basin, which is shown on the map as a brickwork pattern. Over these areas
there is no basal water zone in the Mannville reservoirs. However it is possible that the water
leg may continue through subcropping porous Devonian carbonates. Note also that the contact horizon is not perfectly planar, but has many perturbations over its surface (Fig. 40).
An assumption is made here that is critical to the arguments developed from the observations of the bitumen/water contact. That is that the oil was originally trapped in a conventional density relationship with gas and water i.e. gas overlying oil overlying water, and that
the fluid contacts were originally horizontal. These contacts are now frozen in place because
of the biodegradation of the oil and high viscosity of the bitumen end product.
In almost all instances where gas and or water is present with the bitumen this conventional density relationship is observed even though much of the bitumen is presently denser
than water, and therefore the precursor oil originally had a lower density and lower viscosity.

52

280

T90

29

89

270

230
240

88
87

260

86
28

85

26

240

84

0
27

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83
0

26

24

23

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230

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220

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220

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23

79

230

78

24

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170

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190

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0

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190

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300
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350m
300m
250m
200m
150m
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70

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10

2 R1w4
' 1993 Mike Ranger

Structural Elevation of the


Bitumen/Water Contact
miles
0

basal water not present

Figure
Figure 40 32

170

110

180

17

12

0
Datum: sea level
Contour Interval: 10m

53

10
10

20
20

30

30
40

50

kilometres

40
60

50
70

80

In some instances a water leg is seen to directly overlie the bitumen. The existence of these
overlying water zones have occasionally been used as evidence of bitumen with a density
greater than water migrating into lows in the reservoir (Kidd, 1951). However, it is not uncommon to find a water leg below the bitumen as well as above, with no seal separating any
of the fluids (Fig. 41). Thus the bitumen is truly immobile in its current state at reservoir
conditions, and it became immobile before its density was reduced below that of the underlying formation water. Therefore these overlying water zones cannot be examples of density
settling of the bitumen. There can be little doubt that these zones represent "paleo-gas caps"
that were breached or depressurised after the oil became immobile, allowing water to displace the gas. In some cases a remnant gas cap remains above the water (Fig. 41).
The conclusion can be made that the immobilised fluid contacts are in fact paleo-horizons
that were parallel to paleo-sea level at the time of degradation. The only other explanation is
10-17-74-5W4

West

gamma
ray

deep
resistivity

7-19-74-5W4

6-22-74-5W4

gamma
ray

gamma
ray

deep
resistivity

deep
resistivity

4
1
0
4
2
0
4
3
0
4
4
0
4
5
0
4
6
0
4
7
0
4
8
0
4
9
0
5
0
0

gamma
ray

deep
resistivity
4
0
0

3
9
0
4
0
0

10-13-74-5W4

4
0
0
4
1
0
4
2
0

GAS
WATER
BITUMEN

4
1
0
4
2
0

4
3
0

4
3
0

4
4
0

4
4
0

4
5
0

4
5
0

4
6
0

4
6
0

4
7
0
4
8
0

4
0
0

WATER

4
9
0

5
0
0

Figure 41

4
1
0
4
2
0
4
3
0
4
4
0
4
5
0
4
6
0
4
7
0

4
7
0
4
8
0

4
9
0

East

DEVONIAN
LIMESTONE

East-west cross-section through the Athabasca Oil Sands Deposit in township 74, range 5W4.
This reservoir shows a normal oil field density relationship of water, oil and gas, except for an additional water
leg between the oil (bitumen) and the gas. Note the presence of porous sand both above and below the bitumen,
yet the bitumen has not migrated either upward or downward to displace the water. The water leg above the
bitumen was presumably once part of the gas cap, but some of the gas has leaked off, and been displaced by
water. Immobility of the bitumen is a result of two factors: it has a very high viscosity, and the density of the
bitumen is very close to that of the formation water.

54

that the tilted fluid contacts preserve a hydrodynamic tilt. However the only possible source
beds are deeper in the basin towards the southwest, and therefore large scale fluid migration
must have occurred towards the northeast. But such a hydrodynamic system would have
produced fluid contacts dipping towards the northeast, opposite to the southwestern dip
observed today. Therefore any present-day deviation from the horizontal represents structural deformation that has affected the reservoir since the time of oil degradation and subsequent immobility. There is an important implication to this deduction: by correcting the structure of the top of the reservoir so that the bitumen/water contact is flattened, the geometry of
the trap during accumulation and degradation can be reconstructed.
Mapping Techniques
The high frequency perturbations on the structure elevation map of the bitumen/water
contact (Fig. 40) are due to a number of different causes. Because the contact horizon is immobilised in relation to the enclosing reservoir rocks, any structural dislocation affecting the
reservoir will also affect the contact as long as the dislocation occurred after biodegradation
of the bitumen. The most common structural anomalies are probably minor faulting and isolated collapse due to underlying salt dissolution or karst structure in the underlying Devonian carbonates. Also, the bitumen/water contact is not always sharp on the geophysical
logs. In places it may be transitional over several metres, or there may be a stained zone at the
base of the bitumen, masking the precise contact. Transitional or stained zones may result
from the loss of volume due to biodegradation or water-washing of the precursor oils. Anomalous contact elevations may also simply be error, either in the surveyed ground elevations, or
the logging operation.
Trend analysis of the bitumen/water contact eliminates all of this high frequency noise
and demonstrates the regional trends. One advantage of trend surface analysis is that where
the bitumen/water contact is truncated by Devonian highs on the sub-Cretaceous unconformity, it is possible to extrapolate the trend of the contact through these zones. A simple
third order trend has been used to estimate the surface (Fig. 42). (Trend surface analysis is a
special case of multiple regression wherein a plane is fitted by least squares to a set of data
points in 3 dimensional space. A third order trend fits a curved plane that is constrained to no
more than 2 inflections). This trend then serves as a datum from which the regional structure
on the top of the reservoir can be corrected.
The regional structure of the reservoir can be estimated by mapping the top of the Wabiskaw Member (Fig. 43), which is the uppermost of the reservoir units. The top of this unit is a
marked by a persistent and readily recognised stratigraphic horizon that has a distinct signature on resistivity logs. This horizon is a widespread shale, which is the seal for the Athabasca
reservoirs, and thus represents the configuration of the top of the trap. Trend analysis also
filters out high frequency "noise" on this surface.
Given these topological data, a reconstruction of the reservoir surface can be approximated by simply subtracting the actual elevation of the bitumen/water contact from the elevation of the Wabiskaw marker. In effect this treats the bitumen/water contact as a datum
and thus corrects the reservoir structure so that the datum appears flattened. This provides a
detailed representation of the original configuration of the trap. Furthermore some of the
possible errors, such as ground elevation survey errors and any post-degradation faulting
and collapse are cancelled out by the subtraction of surfaces. One drawback with this method
is that over much of the western part of the Athabasca Deposit, the bitumen/water contact
does not exist since it is truncated by highs on the sub-Cretaceous unconformity. Over these

55

25

NE

T90
89
88

30

87
86
85

250

84
83
25

82

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200

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70

10

sw
19

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16

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14

13

12

11

10

' 1993 Mike Ranger

Structural Elevation of the


Bitumen/Water Contact
Area of extrapolated
trend

3rd Order Trend Surface

NE - SW line: Figure VIII-8 cross-section location

Figure
Figure 42 34

2 R1w4

Datum: sea level


Contour Interval: 10m

56

10

10

20

20

30

miles

40

30

50

kilometres

40

60

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330
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T90

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310

27

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0
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280

83

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26 0
0

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3 5 0 - 400m
3 0 0 - 350m
2 5 0 - 300m

73

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12

13140
0

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22 0
21

11

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190

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74

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71
70

15

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11 10

2 R1w4

' 1993 Mike Ranger

Structural Elevation
Top of Wabiskaw Member

2 0 0 - 250m

miles

1 5 0 - 200m
0

1 0 0 - 150m

Figure 4335
Figure

Datum: sea level


Contour Interval: 10m

57

10

10

20

20

30

30

40

50

kilometres

40

60

50

70

80

areas the extrapolated trend of the bitumen/water contact can be substituted for the actual
horizon.
Discussion
There are two major components to the structure of the top of the Wabiskaw, the primary
being the homoclinal Laramide subsidence to the southwest into the foreland basin. No less
significant from an economic point of view is the reversal in structural dip to the east (Fig. 43).
This is caused by dissolution of underlying Middle Devonian salt accompanied by structural
collapse and differential compaction of overlying strata.

Trap
The structure of the Wabiskaw marker corrected by flattening on the bitumen/water contact is shown in Fig. 44. This surface represents the trap structure restored to its configuration
at the time the oil was degraded to bitumen and immobilised. The trend of this surface (Fig.45)
emphasises the broad regional attitude of the original trap structure.
Since the general southwest dip of the bitumen/water contact is only slightly less than
regional structural dip of the top of the Wabiskaw, the restored trap structure has a much
gentler southwesterly dip and provides a tremendously larger area of structural closure than
exists today (Fig. 46). The configuration of the trap is that of a very broad, very low amplitude
anticline with axis along the northeastern edge of the basin, confirming the existence of what
has been called the "Athabasca Anticline" (Masters, 1984). The maximum east-west closure
across the width of the anticlinal trap extended for over 150 km, but maximum vertical closure was little more than 60 m (Fig. 46b).
The distribution of bitumen in the restored trap indicates that the anticlinal structure is by
itself a sufficient trapping mechanism for the southern and central part of the deposit (Fig.
48). No stratigraphic component or updip bitumen plug is required at least in the southeast.
The northern edge of the anticline is eroded however, and its configuration will never be
known. Although the restored anticlinal structure plunges towards the south-southeast, the
northern apex shows no reversal of plunge up to the erosional edge. It is generally accepted
that the McMurray Formation prograded northward into the boreal sea, and it may be surmised that it shaled out to the north beyond the present day erosional edge, suggesting the
existence of a northern stratigraphic component to the trap.
One problematic area of the trapping mechanism remains. The northeastern limit of the
deposit is not explained by structural trapping due to salt solution dip reversal. Bitumen is
found far to the east of the present day edge of salt solution collapse (Fig. 47). North of township 90, almost all of the salt dissolution and consequent structural collapse probably occurred before Mannville time. Therefore the Wabiskaw shale that forms the seal is relatively
flat and did not experience the salt dissolution dip reversal seen in the south.
How then was the bitumen trapped in the northeast? There is no evidence that the McMurray Formation shales out towards the east. Furthermore, there appears to be an updip
gas leg in the area. In crops out along the Christina River, and in nearby wells there are barren
sands above the bitumen saturated sands. As discussed above, these can only be evidence of
a paleo-gas leg that has leaked off after degradation of the oil and been displaced by water.
Additional, circumstantial evidence of the former existence of gas in these barren zones is the
presence of sulphur precipitate associated with carbonaceous matter in outcrops of the overlying barren zone on the High Hill River. This infers that hydrogen sulphide (a common

58

T90
89
88
87
86
85
84
83
82
81
80
79
78
77
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75
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20

19

18

17

>80m
70 80m
60 70m
50 60m
40 50m
30 40m
20 30m
10 20m
0 10m
-10 0m
-20 -10m

Figure 44 36
Figure

16

15

14

13

12

11 10

2 R1w4
' 1993 Mike Ranger

"Restored" Structural Elevation


Top of Wabiskaw Member
Datum: bitumen/water contact or,
where not present, its extrapolated trend
0
0

Contour Interval: 10m

59

10
10

20

20
30

miles
40

30
50

kilometres

40
60

50
70

80

T90
89

40

88

20

30

70

87
0

86
85
50

84

50

60

83

10

82

80

30

20

40

81

79
78
77
76

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75
74
73
72

50

71
70
20

19

18

17

16

15

14

13

12

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10

2 R1w4
' 1993 Mike Ranger

"Restored" Structural Elevation


Top of Wabiskaw Member
Datum: 3rd order trend of
the bitumen/water contact

3rd Order Trend Surface


0

Area of extrapolated trend


of the bitumen/water contact

Figure 45 37
Figure

Contour Interval: 5m

60

10

10

20

20

30

miles

40

30

50

kilometres

40

60

50

70

80

SW

NE
Salt dissolution
roll-over

400

Top of the reservoir


(Wabiskaw Member)

200

metres above sea level

300

Bitumen/water contact
100

A.

kilometres
200

100

SW

NE

Top of the reservoir


(Wabiskaw Member)

Salt dissolution
roll-over

400

200

Bitumen/water contact
(restored to horizontal)

metres above sea level

300

100

B.

kilometres
200

100

0
0

Figure 46
Figure
38. Trend surface cross-sections through the Athabasca reservoir, approximately
perpendicular to the strike of the Laramide subsidence.
A. Present day configuration of the Athabasca reservoir. Note that the bitumen-water
contact dips slightly less than the stratigraphic dip of the host reservoir.
B. The structure of Athabasca reservoir, restored to its configuration at the time of
trapping of the oil by flattening the bitumen-water contact. The salt dissolution roll-over
formed before migration of the bitumen, thus forming the trap.

61

component of natural gas) was present in the porous sand at some time in its diagenetic
history. This overlying paleo-gas leg means that the bitumen plug trapping mechanism
(Mossop, 1980b) can be discounted since the gas was updip from the bitumen, shared the
reservoir, and would have required a trap of its own. Also the bitumen saturated zone does
not end abruptly by laterally interfingering with unsaturated sand as depicted in diagrams of
the bitumen plug theory (Mossop, 1980b), but it has what would have been a normal density
relationship. The barren zone (originally gas) vertically displaces the bitumen as the structural elevation of the reservoir rises.
A simple stratigraphic mechanism can easily explain the trap. During transgression of the
Clearwater sea, shales overstepped the reservoir sands sealing them by onlap against the
Precambrian Shield (Fig. 49). Outcrop evidence for this no longer exists because erosion at the
edge of a tilted basin typically exposes older beds towards the edge and their original configuration is destroyed. If this trapping mechanism was indeed the operative one, one would
perhaps not expect a perfect seal at the edge for a number of reasons. First, as the Clearwater
Formation transgressed and onlapped the Precambrian Shield it is likely to have left a coarse
detrital lag at its base, the thickness of which would depend on the rate of sea level rise, the
angle of incline of the shoreface and the amount of detritus available. Second, any porosity in
the Precambrian regolith such as a fracture network or porous clastics could also provide
minor conduits through the seal. Either or both of these conditions could have provided a
pathway for oil or gas seeps along the edge of the basin, when gas still existed and when the
oil was still mobile. It is noteworthy that bitumen is very common in fractures and porous
clastics of the Precambrian Athabasca Group and in fractures of older basement. These occur
both in outcrop and in boreholes as far away as the eastern shore of Lake Athabasca approximately 150 kilometres northwest of the edge of the Athabasca Oil Sand Deposit (Wilson, 1985).
Furthermore, analysis of a single sample of this Precambrian bitumen indicates a composition that compares closely with bitumen from the McMurray Formation (Wilson, 1985, appendix G) but is heavier and presumably more degraded. The amount of bitumen trapped in
Precambrian rocks has never been determined, and its extraction potential, if any, is unknown.
However its occurrence can be explained as minor seeps through the stratigraphic pinch-out
trap of the McMurray Formation against the Precambrian Shield (Fig. 50). One can surmise
that much gas also escaped by this route even before the McMurray Formation reservoir was
breached by erosion.
South of township 90, where the trapping mechanism is structural due to post depositional rollover from salt dissolution collapse, it can be conjectured that the existence of this
structure was probably not crucial to the trapping mechanism. The same kind of stratigraphic
pinch-out of the reservoir, sealed by onlapping shales can be expected further to the east. If
anything, the salt solution collapse structure probably restricted the areal size of the trap by
many thousands of square kilometres.
Timing
The southwestern dip of the bitumen/water contact is only slightly less than regional
structural dip of the Lower Cretaceous strata (Fig. 46). This dip is due to subsidence of the
foreland basin that was caused by Laramide uplift and subsequent tectonic and sediment
loading. Since the immobilised bitumen/water contact has experienced all but a small part of
this subsidence, it can be concluded that migration, trapping and degradation all were completed very early in Laramide time. Tectonic studies of the western part of the basin suggest
that the earliest effects of the Laramide orogeny were felt in Late Cretaceous time (Porter et

62

T 104
T 103
T 102
T 101
T 100
T 99
T 98

IO
UT
OL
SA LT S

BTT 9796
T 95
T 94
T 93
T 92

T 91

Ft. McMurray

T 90
T 89

CO

Athabasca Deposit

PS
OLLA
EC
EDG
SE
AP
LL

T 88
T 87
T 86
T 85
T 84
T 83
T 82
T 81
T 80
T 79
T 78

E ED

T 77
T 76

GE

T 75
T 74
T 73
T 72
T 71
T 70

4 3 2 R1w5 26 25 24 23 22 21 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11 10 9

2 R1w4

Figure 47
Figure
39.
Outline of the Athabasca Oil Sands Deposit. East of the salt
solution edge, structural collapse has produced a roll-over structure that
forms the trap in the southern part of the deposit. The northern part of
the deposit extends beyond the salt solution edge and was probably
stratigraphically trapped.

63

64

Figure 48

65

Figure 49

66

Figure 50

al., 1982). It is difficult to estimate a more exact upper limit for the time of final immobility of
the oil-water contact.
The Upper Cretaceous limit on the formation of the oil may also explain the apparent
present day volume deficit of source rocks for the oil sands of western Canada. Pre-Laramide
palinspastic reconstruction of the western Canada basin (McMechan and Thompson, 1992;
Gabrielse and Yorath, 1992) provides evidence of a much larger potential volume of source
rocks than would have been available later in the history of the Laramide orogeny, when
thrust and translational tectonics shortened the foreland belt by up to 200 km (Gabrielse and
Yorath, 1992), removing much potential source from the hydrocarbon "kitchen".
It seems apparent that the formation, migration, trapping and degradation of the Athabasca bitumens must have been all but completed early in the development of the Laramide
orogeny, by Late Cretaceous time. However, the onset of oil formation could not have begun
much earlier than this time, because the burial history of the basin indicates that conditions
were inadequate (Deroo et al., 1977). It follows therefore that the vast volumes of oil required
to produce the Athabasca bitumen (not to mention the other large oil sands and heavy oil
deposits) appear to have been generated and to have migrated in a relatively short period of
time. An explanation for the rapid migration over many hundreds of kilometres of the huge
volumes of hydrocarbon required is beyond the scope of this paper, however it should be
noted that time may not be a critical factor for the maturation of organic matter into hydrocarbon. Price (1983) has concluded that beyond about one million years, time is not a factor in
organic metamorphism. That is, once temperature and pressure conditions reach critical 1evels,
organic metamorphism is relatively instantaneous (on the scale of geologic time).

Restrictions on Migration Timing and Mechanism


Very early in the Laramide orogeny, significant Cordilleran hydraulic head could not have
been present at the time of migration and therefore the large scale, basin ground-water flow
of Garven (1989) and Hitchon (1984) could not have been significant at this time. Thus migration was probably driven by compaction and buoyancy. Furthermore, the time window for
migration did not extend into the Tertiary as proposed by Garven (1989), but was finished by
Late Cretaceous time.
These conclusions have implications and raise more questions regarding the method of
oil migration. Specifically, if the oil migrated by buoyancy, then migration as a separate phase
is probably indicated rather than as a miscible phase where migration is more easily accomplished by hydrodynamic flow. Here as well, further discussion of this topic is beyond the
scope of this paper, but any discussion of migration methods and phases must take into account the conclusion borne out here regarding timing of migration and structural attitude of
the basin.
Gas
Large and small gas accumulations that share the bitumen reservoirs are common in the
Athabasca Deposit. The largest fields are concentrated along the southeastern edge of the
deposit, extending beyond the eastern limit of the bitumen.
Some of the gas was possibly formed biogenically in-situ at an early stage (Deroo et al.,
1977), and filled small structural anomalies in the Athabasca reservoir. However, potential
source rocks would not have been entirely horizontal during the early Laramide, and they
probably dipped down through immature to mature to overmature windows of organic meta-

67

morphism. Therefore gas could have formed downdip from the zone of contemporaneous oil
formation.
The existence of large gas accumulations beyond the eastern limit of the bitumen (Fig. 51)
may be evidence for a phase of late gas generation. This area would have been downdip on
the structural trap at the time of bitumen accumulation. However subsequent Laramide tilting of the structure has created new structural traps into which the degraded bitumen could
not migrate. Any late generation of gas could then accumulate in this updip position of the
tilted anticlinal structure.

68

T 85

T 84

T 83

T 82

Eastern limit
of Bitumen

T 81

T 80

T 79

T 78

T 77

T 76

T 75

T 74

T 73

T 72
R10
> 10m
8 - 10m
6 - 8m
4 - 6m

R9

R8

R7

R6

R5

R4

R3

R1w4
' 1993 Mike Ranger

Southeast Athabasca Gas Fields

McMurray Fm. and Wabiskaw Mbr.


Net Gas Pay

2 - 4m

miles
0

0 - 2m

Figure
43
Figure 51

R2

Contour Interval: 2m

69

10

10

20

20

30

kilometres

30

40

50

Figure 52

70

DESCRIPTION OF SELECTED FACIES AND


SEDIMENTARY STRUCTURES
FROM THE McMURRAY FORMATION
Common Reservoir and Non-reservoir Facies
The two dominant facies associations that constitute potential reservoirs are massive-appearing clean sand, and interbedded sand and mud. The interbedded facies association may
be sand-dominated or mud-dominated. Interbedded facies that contain anything less than 510% mud may be considered good reservoir. Bitumen-saturated sands may appear massive
in fresh core, but heavy bitumen saturation typically masks all sedimentary structures. In
outcrop, weathering exposes and accentuates the bedding allowing an interpretation of hydrodynamic conditions.
Clean Sand Facies
These make up the most desirable reservoir facies, and may be bedded or massive. The
thickest bedded facies constitute bedsets of half a metre or more in thickness, exhibiting planar-laminated cross-stratification with toeset development indicating that these are high flow
regime, sigmoidal, megaripple dunes (Fig. 53, 54). The topset laminae are rarely preserved
due to truncation by succeeding events. These bedsets contain numerous examples of tidal
indicators, such as reverse flow ripples, reactivation surfaces and rhythmic grain size couplets. Within bedsets, bioturbation is absent. But the truncated, scoured, upper surface of
each bedset may be capped by a thin shale, a centimetre or less in thickness, and/or a bioturbated horizon indicating a period of quiescence or abandonment. The ichnofacies suite is low
diversity, typically consisting of only Cylindrichnus and Skolithos. However, at various locations rare Conichnus have been noted. Conichnus is believed to be the resting trace of a sea
anemone, a marine organism intolerant of brackish or fresh water conditions.
Although often interpreted as high energy fluvial channel deposits, the presence of brackish as well as rare, fully-marine, trace fossil indicators suggest at least periodic incursion of
marine conditions. The tidal structures further indicate a strong marine influence. Therefore
we tend to place this facies association in the lower (outer) estuary proximal to the estuary
mouth, possibly with flow velocities magnified periodically by ebb tidal discharge.
Mud Breccia Facies
A related facies frequently observed within the clean sand facies association constitute
intervals of massive sand containing brecciated shale clasts varying in size from decimetre or
more down to centimetres or less. Although by itself this would not normally be considered
as potential reservoir, it is most likely indicative of being in close proximity to reservoir facies.
These units are believed to be the result of overbank collapse, and probably constitute a debris flow of limited areal distribution (Fig. 55). As such they probably reside in the thalweg of
a channel, associated with the sandy, basal channel traction load. The mud clasts are unconsolidated and once entrained in the traction load, they would quickly become disaggregated,
presumably within several tens to hundreds of metres. Therefore they would not be expected
to have much lateral extent in the downstream direction, and even less in the cross-channel
direction.
Surrounding, and/or interbedded with the breccias, one frequently observes intervals of
massive, structureless sand. These can properly be considered as part of the same debris flow
or associated grain flow that entrains the breccias. These massive, clean sands are obviously

71

Figure 53. Sigmoidal megaripple bedding (Christina River outcrop). Bedsets are 70cm to 1m in thickness even without the topsets preserved. Note backflow climbing ripples at toesets (A). Topsets are always scoured before deposition of a succeeding bedset (B). The upper scoured surface of a bedset commonly displays evidence of a quiescent period, accompanied by opportunistic colonisation by brackishtolerant organisms, commonly Cylindrichnus.

72

73

R10W4

as

R9W4

C le

arw
Riv e r

R8W4

Airport

a te r

ti n

aR

R7W4

ris

Ch

R11 W4

At

b
ha

ca

Ft. McMurray

Riv e r

iv e r

R6W4

502526E
6275035N
(NAD 27)

T88

T89

T90

10 9

6 5 4 3
metres

Figure 54. Outcrop along the Christina River


This outcrop is dominated by megarippled dunes of the lower part of
the McMurray Formation. Forset tops are scoured and bounded by
hiatal surfaces, which may be bioturbated by "opportunistic colonisation". Note tidal indicators such as grain size couplets, reverse flow
climbing ripples and reactivation surfaces.

56 37.28' N 110 57.54' N

McMurray Formation (lower)

Christina River Outcrop

1 0

10

vertical exaggeration: x 1.5

A Overbank collapse

Channel thalweg

B Transport downstream (10's to 100's (?) of metres)

Figure 55.

Mud clast breccia in core. Mud clasts probably result from overbank collapse due to cutbank
erosion by a migrating channel, here shown eroding an older point bar (A). Material is swept into the thalweg of
the channel as a short-lived debris flow. If not deposited immediately (and thereby preserved), the debris would
be transported downstream as part of the traction load, quickly becoming disaggregated (B).

excellent reservoirs, but, as with the breccias, would not be expected to have much lateral
extent. Nonetheless, because of their interpreted position within a channel environment, both
the breccias and the massive sands are normally included as indicative of potential reservoir
when evaluating reserves and planning a recovery scheme.
Inclined Heterolithic Stratification (IHS)
Parallel to sub-parallel inclined strata previously known as epsilon cross-stratification
(Allen, 1963) or longitudinal cross-bedding has been redefined and classified by Thomas et
al., (1987) as Inclined Heterolithic Stratification (IHS). Thick sets of IHS have been recognised in many examples of modern and ancient strata (de Mowbray, 1983; Flach and Mossop
1985; MacEachern, 1989; as well as numerous others). IHS develops as lateral accretion deposits, and is generally interpreted as a migrating point bar (Thomas et al., 1987; Rahmani,
1988; Wood, 1989). Many of the modern and ancient examples of IHS invoke a tidal influence
on a fluvial or estuarine system to provide the fluctuating energy regime required to produce
the heterogeneous bedding, which typically consists of repetitive sets of mud-sand couplets

74

on a scale of centimetres to decimetres. There are examples of purely fluvial settings that
produce IHS (Jackson, 1978, 1981; Thomas et al., 1987). These systems have seasonal flood
cycles producing fluctuating discharge that is probably a factor in the development of the
mud drapes, although the full mechanism that produces IHS in a fluvial environment is not
yet completely understood.
By far the large majority of studied examples of IHS are observed in what is interpreted as
migrating point bars under the influence of tidal effects, whether in a brackish lower estuary,
or in the fluvial fresh water reaches of the upper estuary where tides still have an effect on the
flow regime (Thomas et al., 1987; Smith, 1988).
IHS is an extremely common bedding configuration in the McMurray Formation, as one
can observe in the outcrops (Fig. 57). In core, interbedded sand and mud is one of the most
frequently observed facies associations, much of which can be recognised as IHS, even in the
limited window that core affords (Fig. 56). The classic outcrop example of IHS, and the site

Figure 56. Examples of Inclined Heterolithic Stratification in core. A: sand-dominated. B: mud-dominated.


(Sand beds are bitumen-saturated and black) Note the generally inclined natured of the bedding. True dip is
typically a maximum of 10 to 12 degrees.

where it was first recognised as an important component of the McMurray Fm., is at the
Steepbank River outcrops (see Fig. 7). Here, as well as at several nearby mine face exposures,
the channel fills are dominated by IHS. These consists of repetitive sets of decimetre to metre
thick couplets of sand and mud, inclined at angles of 8 to 12, grading into a coarse-grained
trough cross-bedded sand facies towards the base (Mossop and Flach, 1983). Overlying the
IHS beds at Steepbank are horizontally bedded, silty, argillaceous sands and muds that are
extensively bioturbated.
Originally interpreted as delta foresets (Carrigy, 1971), it is generally accepted that this
succession represents lateral accretion of point bars in a channel (Mossop and Flach, 1983;
Smith, 1987, 1988). Although Mossop and Flach originally believed the Steepbank IHS to

75

Figure 57. Inclined Heterolithic Stratification (IHS) at an outcrop on the Steepbank River. IHS constitutes
the point bar bedding of several genetic units interpreted as estuarine channels. Stacked channels result
from incision, both vertically and laterally, of earlier generation channels. Note trees at upper right for
approximate scale.

represent a generally fining upwards fluvial channel system, subsequent ichnological and
sedimentological studies (Pemberton et al., 1982; Smith, 1987) indicated a strong marine influence, suggesting that the channels were indeed brackish estuarine in nature, an environment originally proposed by Stewart and MacCallum (1978). The overlying horizontal and
extensively bioturbated argillaceous sand unit is now interpreted as a tidal flat, the overbank expression of an estuarine channel system. The estuarine channel system at the Steepbank outcrop is 30 to 40 metres in thickness. However the system consists of amalgamated
stacked channel fills that are typically 5 to 8 metres in individual thickness, and which erode
and interpenetrate each other laterally as well as vertically (Fig. 57).
The effects of periodic events that are responsible for high rates of deposition, as well as
salinity and turbidity stress are clearly evident in the ichnofaunal assemblages in the IHS
beds. These consist of intervals that are barren of ichnofossils capped by bedding interfaces
that supported an opportunistic population. On the other hand, the ichnofaunal suites that
represent the stable, equilibrium population display many of the characteristics of brackish
water assemblages. (See chapter on Estuarine Ichnology of the Athabasca Deposit.)
Whether the point bar IHS intervals are sand- or mud-dominated probably depends on
their physiographic position relative to the turbidity maximum in the estuary. However other
factors may play a role, such as the local sediment source, morphology of the point bar, and
relative strength of currents. From a reservoir point of view, the sand-dominated point bars
are clearly to be preferred. But even within the sand-dominated point bars, the presence of
cyclic mud beds may lower the quality of the reservoir. Based on observations of outcrop, the

76

mud beds can be expected to be relatively continuous from the top of the point bar almost
down to the toe, thus affecting both lateral and vertical permeability. However, the point bars
typically do become coarser and/or sandier downwards reflecting increasing energy levels
towards the thalweg of a channel.
Barren Mud Plug Facies
Mud intervals several metres or tens of metres thick that are barren of ichnofossils are
interpreted as the fill in abandoned estuarine channels, which were periodically flooded with
turbid fresh water due to overbank flooding during periods of high fluvial discharge. Such
intervals are relatively common in core, but are not know to exist in natural outcrop, probably
because of their poor preservation potential once exposed.
Coal/Oxidised Mud Facies
In the subsurface, coal and organic shale associated with rooted horizons and oxidised
paleosols are frequently observed in core. These are potentially critical horizons in the emerging sequence stratigraphic history of the McMurray Formation. These marsh-paleosol units
can be observed in outcrop at several locations (Fig. 58), and may be associated with what
appear to be fossilised bog iron horizons.

Figure 58. "Marsh/Paleosol" unit lying on the sub-Cretaceous Unconformity (not visible) 75cm to 1m of very
light oxidised mud is overlain by dark organic shale and thin coal. (Unit closer to the foreground is slumped from
above.)

77

Brackish and Tidal Physical Structures


Couplets and Pinstriping
Among the most common sedimentary structures associated with tidally-influenced sedimentation are the various expressions of sediment couplets and pinstripe lamination (Fig. 59,
60, 61). Although they only provide equivocal evidence of semidiurnal processes, where couplets and pinstripes are repeatedly observed they are taken to provide reasonable evidence of
tidal influence. Both of these sedimentary structures result from rhythmic fluctuations in current energy, thereby inducing textural or mineralogical heterogeneity. If attributed to tidal
processes, the coarser-grained fraction is generally deposited during the flood or ebb of the
tidal waters, whereas the finer-grained fraction accumulates during the slack period (the switch
from tide-flood to -ebb, or vice versa).
Because most tidal channels are either flood- or ebb-dominated, the laminae are commonly asymmetrical and occur in rhythmic groups of four laminae; these are characteristic of
tidal couplets. Although couplets are commonly composed of two sand and two mud laminae, they might also comprise sand and organic detritus or quartz sand and heavy-mineral
sand.
In pinstripe lamination, the sedimentary laminae are evenly-spaced and laterally continuous. In such cases flood and ebb currents are considered to be almost equal. It is worth noting
that although pinstripe lamination is commonly associated with tidal deposition, many other
sedimentary processes might be invoked that could explain the presence of similar lamination.

Figure 59. Some of the


potential variations that
might be observed with tidally-generated pinstripes (A)
and couplets (B through E).
The inset is a subsurface example that corresponds to
B.

78

Figure 60 A. Couplets defined by sand and silty mud. In this example, organic detritus drapes some of the
sand beds forming tidal triplets. The uneven, but rhythmic distribution of the laminae is typical of tidal
bundles. Photograph courtesy of Jason Lavigne.

Figure 60 B. Variations in tide height are rarely


preserved in the rock record. For instance, the rhythmical thinning and thickening of several tidal bundles probably represents tidal fluctuations that are
associated with the phase of the moon (neap/spring
bundles). New moons and full moons are linked to
spring tides, which generate the highest tide heights.
Half moons are related to the lowest energy neap
tides. Correspondingly, more sediment can be transported during spring tides resulting in a thickening of
those laminae. Phases of the moon follow a 28 day
cycle and the time between spring tides is 14 days.
The number of sand laminae in a neap/spring should
add up to 28 in a 14 day cycle.

79

Figure 61 A and B. Examples of couplets from core of the McMurray Formation.


A. Rythmic lamination produced from semidiurnal (?) fluctuations in depositional current. The apparent bifurcation of laminae is due to draping of starved ripples. Note the pinstripe laminae near the top of the sample.
B. Rythmic couplets that show systematic thinning of the couplets forming apparent neap/spring bundles.

80

Reactivation Surfaces
Reactivation surfaces and sigmoidal bedding are commonly invoked as evidence for regularly reversing depositional currents. In the case of reactivation surfaces (Fig. 62, 63, 64), bedforms are first deposited under one current direction and then subsequently modified by a
subordinate current that has the opposite flow direction. This process is iterative and results
in cross-bedded sands with several internal erosional surfaces that have a slightly lower dip
than the sandwave foresets. Sigmoidal beds are commonly associated with these processes
and are illustrated in some of the following photographs.

Figure 62. The depositional conditions that lead to the development of reactivation surfaces. The important points
to note are: 1) the necessity of reversing depositional currents to modify the
bedform following its initiation; 2) the implication that one of the currents is dominant over the other; and, 3) the local development of sigmoidal bedding in association with reactivation surfaces.

81

Figure 63. Reactivation surfaces in outcrop. The dominant current direction is left to right and the subordinate
current modified the bedform from the right to left. Note how difficult it might be to identify reactivation surfaces in
core.

Figure 64.

Reactivation surfaces in outcrop. These are larger than those shown in the previous figure.
Couplets have also developed in this bedform. Close inspection of the reactivation surfaces reveals rythmic
spacing. It is worth knowing that such spacing can sometimes be related to neap/spring bundles.

82

Herringbone Cross-stratification
Herringbone cross-lamination (Fig. 65) and cross-stratification are probably the most globally recognized tidal sedimentary structure. As a first principle, this is based on the fact that
the dip direction of a ripples or subaqueous dunes foresets indicates the direction of sediment transport. Where foresets truncate each other and indicate opposite flow directions (for
example: one set dips left and the next set dips right), it is commonly inferred that tidal currents were the depositional mechanism at work. The logic is sound but great care must be
taken to ensure that the foresets truly dip in opposite directions: this is difficult in two dimensional exposures.

Figure 65. An excellent example of herringbone cross-lamination from an outcrop of the McMurray Formation
on the Christina River. The lower set indicates sediment transport to the left and the upper set, which sharply
truncates the lower set, indicates sediment transport to the right.

83

Reverse-flow Ripples
Other types of tidal sedimentary structure include the various reverse-flow ripples (Fig.
66). These are conceptually like herringbone cross-stratification in that they indicate opposite
flow directions. Reverse-flow ripples consist of small ripples that are climbing back up the
dipping foresets of larger bedforms. They are thought to form during the subordinate tidal
flow on the down current side of larger bedforms that are shaped by the dominant tidal flow.
One should be careful not to confuse these with backflow climbing ripples formed by vortices in the troughs on the lee side of megaripples. These normally form only at the base of, or
as an integral part of, the toeset of a megaripple.

Figure 66. Reverse-flow ripples from an outcrop of the McMurray Formation on the Christina River. The knife
indicates current ripples that are climbing up the foresets of a larger megaripple. The ripples migrated to the right
during the subordinate tidal flow and the megaripple migrated to the left in response to the dominant tidal current.

84

Synaeresis Cracks
Synaeresis cracks (Fig. 67) are one of the very useful indicators of salinity fluctuation. In
Cretaceous strata of the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin, they have been consistently associated with deposits of brackish affinity. Units that have abundant synaeresis cracks, which
are linked to brackish-water deposits, include the McMurray, Bluesky, Viking, Belly
River, and the Dunvegan Formations. The
interpretation that synaeresis cracks are
linked to salinity fluctuations is based on
clay volume shrinkage resulting from
changes in the ionic strength of the depositional waters. The cracks are initiated
when salt water comes into contact with
fine sediments that accumulated in fresh
water. Once they have formed, synaeresis
cracks are filled with sediment from above,
commonly sand or silt. These sedimentary
structures are similar to desiccation cracks.
However, because they form in wet, unconsolidated sediments, as opposed to drying sediments, synaeresis cracks are commonly compacted after forming and look
crenulated; on bedding planes they are
randomly oriented and commonly have a
gash-like appearance.
There is some debate as to the true nature of synaeresis cracks. Some have recently been interpreted to be related to tectonic events and may be controlled by the
initial substrate consistency. However, the
close association of synaeresis cracks and
fluctuating water salinity is well established.

Figure 67. Synaeresis cracks from a core in the McMurray Formation. The cracks shown here are filled with sand.
Notably, the extremely impoverished trace-fossil suite attests to the brackish nature of synaeresis cracks.

85

ESTUARINE ICHNOLOGY OF THE ATHABASCA DEPOSIT


Several different assemblages of ichnofauna are observed in Athabasca IHS point bars.
Typically the sands lack internal burrowing. However the upper surface of the sand bed of
each sand-mud couplet often contains abundant specimens of the ichnogenera Gyrolithes, an
ichnofossil with a spiral burrow morphology or Cylindrichnus. These simple, monospecific
ichnofossil suites represent the dwelling burrows of organisms that colonised the sandy substrate of the point bar following deposition of the sand component of the couplet. Both ichnofossil forms are invariably filled with mud from the overlying mud bed. This assemblage is
observed at the interface between the sand and mud beds, and evidently the environmental
conditions immediately following deposition of the sand were conducive then, and only then,
for the colonization of the substrate by fauna exhibiting such burrowing behaviour.
The silty mud beds of the IHS couplets directly overlying the sand are extensively burrowed. Individual traces may be difficult to discern, and the bioturbation generally takes the
form of disruption of primary bedding in the mud. In other studies of IHS, silty and sandy
laminae have been observed in the mud units and interpreted as the diurnal tidal signature of
the strata (Thomas et al., 1987). In the McMurray mud beds typically no internal bedding
remains, although reworked pods of silt and fine sand may represent the remnants of such
laminae. Individual ichnofossils that can be recognized in the mud include the ichnogenera
Planolites, and Teichichnus, representing the behaviour of deposit feeders.
The cyclic nature of these sand-mud units and their characteristic ichnofossil assemblages
conform well with what is known about the physical characteristics of an estuary. The mud
beds reflect the normal brackish conditions in the estuary; the point bars slowly accumulate
mud drapes over a relatively long period due its position within the turbidity maximum,
seaward of the head of the salt wedge. The muddy substrate and low energy conditions support elements of the Cruziana ichnofacies, influenced by the variable salinity conditions imposed by the spring-neap tidal cycles. During periods of high fluvial discharge, which may
be a seasonal flooding phenomenon or a random, intense, storm event , the salt wedge becomes stratified and is displaced downstream, freshening the subaqueous environment in
the vicinity of the point bar. Accompanying this is an influx of sand entrained in the flood
waters, which accumulates rapidly over only a few days. The rapid deposition and the presence of turbid fresh water precludes the colonisation of the new coarser substrate until net
velocities and sediment transport return to normal rates, which may take several weeks. The
surface of the sandy substrate can then become the site of an opportunistic colonisation chiefly
by the Gyrolithes or Cylindrichnus trace-making organisms. This colonisation would necessarily be short-lived because once the turbidity maximum returns to its normal physiographic
position and mud once more begins to accumulate, the substrate is no longer conducive to
the type of behaviour exhibited by the opportunistic fauna; they are literally smothered, and
their burrows filled with mud. The faunal population then returns to its equilibrium state:
deposit feeders and foragers. In many ways, the equilibrium ichnofauna may also be considered "opportunistic", especially if fluvial flood events are regular seasonal occurrences. Survival in such conditions would require rapid colonisation, rapid reproduction and rapid grow
over a period of less than one year.
Seaward of the turbidity maximum, the point bar is subject to little mud deposition except
during periods of high fluvial discharge, which would displace the turbidity maximum downstream. Most of the mud beds will be poorly preserved, totally eroded by subsequent events.
Where preserved, the muds appear to have supported an abundant, stable, faunal popula-

86

tion. The ichnogenera Asterosoma, Arenicolites, Palaeophycus, Planolites and Skolithos are common, representing both deposit-feeding and dwelling structures. The sands may be locally
sourced from erosion of the cutbank, or brought in from seaward direction during major
storm surges. Therefore, the sand beds may also be the result of episodic events, the equilibrium state on the point bar being reworking of sand by diurnal tidal currents. The sands
commonly contain an internal monospecific ichnofauna typically consisting of rare, small,
Cylindrichnus shafts. This suggests that the sand accumulated relatively slowly, under brackish conditions.
Thick, laminated, but otherwise structureless, mud that is almost totally barren of ichnofossils is interpreted to represent an estuarine channel abandonment mud plug. The only
bioturbation observed in these intervals is associated with a few minor laminae of silt or
sand, and consists of almost entirely of Planolites. Following avulsion, an abandoned estuarine channel meander would slowly become plugged in a similar fashion to an abandoned
fluvial meander. The only sediment influx into the resulting pond would be due to turbid,
overbank, freshwater flow during flood events. As discussed above, flood events in an estuary result from large fluvial discharge, which is accompanied by freshening of the estuary,
especially near the surface. The abandoned channel thus periodically becomes flooded with
fresh water and suspended sediment, which slowly accumulates over time creating the preserved plug. The rare bioturbation that is observed may be due to organisms washed in along
with suspended silt and very fine sand during extreme spring tidal surges, which overwhelm
the fresh water lens in the estuary.
Mud-dominated, estuarine point bar deposits, composed of IHS, are interpreted to have
accumulated largely within the turbidity maximum of an estuarine system. The mud beds
may or may not be bioturbated. The bioturbated muds represent the equilibrium state on the
point bar, which aggraded predominantly by settling of fines out of suspension aided by
flocculation of clays. These muds are commonly dominated by burrows of the ichnogenera
Cylindrichnus, Planolites and Skolithos. These forms are considered the resident equilibrium
population, and represent a mixed Skolithos - Cruziana ichnofacies. The ichnofaunal population may be abundant yet low in diversity, representing an impoverished marine assemblage.
All forms are generally small in size. These features are all characteristics of brackish conditions. Barren muds probably represent periods of rapid deposition of flocculated clays settling from suspension accompanied by an influx of fresh water, conditions indicative of high
fluvial discharge associated with flood conditions.
Examples of Estuarine-Associated Trace Fossils from the Athabasca Oil Sands Deposit
Trace fossils are both sedimentological and paleontological entities. They represent a unique
blending of potential environmental indicators in the stratigraphic record. Like physical sedimentary structures, trace fossils reflect many of the effects of prevalent environmental parameters. To a greater extent than body fossils, trace fossils are a record of the behaviour of
active, in-situ organisms. The behavioural record of benthic organisms, as dictated or modified by environmental constraints, is thus the mainstay of ichnology.
Biogenic structures may be preserved in many forms, but in core one is concerned mainly
with tracks, trails, burrows, and borings. The objective in this short overview is to show how
to recognize estuarine trace fossils that are commonly encountered in Athabasca cores, and to
point out the facies implications of these various structures.
Recent summaries dealing with the recognition of trace fossils in core can be found in
Chamberlain (1975,1978), Ekdale (1977, 1978, 1980), Ekdale et al. (1984), Bromley (1990), and

87

the papers in Pemberton (1992). Although it is important to be able to identify specific ichnofossils, it is equally important to be able to differentiate between ichnofossil associations that
may represent behavioural or ethological groups. This distinction has considerable ramifications in delineating estuarine ichnofacies.
Recognition of trace fossils in cores is based mainly on their appearance in vertical crosssection, either on the curved outer surface of an unsplit core or the flat face of a slabbed core.
Simple vertical burrows (e.g., Skolithos) will be under-represented in core descriptions, because the probability of a core intersecting a burrow with a long axis parallel to the core is less
than the probability of the core cutting across a horizontal burrow (e.g., Planolites) that is
oriented perpendicular to the core.
Recognition of portions of particular ichnogenera cut at various angles is a practiced skill.
Typically, more than one view is essential to assure an accurate identification. For example,
an oval in two dimensions could represent the true cross-section of a compacted horizontal
burrow, an oblique cut through an uncompacted burrow that actually is circular in crosssection, or just an ovoid clast.
This overview contains schematic drawings and photographs to illustrate the appearance
of several common Athabasca trace fossils in cross-section and at various angles in core. One
must keep in mind that large traces have to be recognized in parts, and it may be small or
delicate features (e.g. pellets, spreite structure, etc.), that allow for a proper identification.

Key To Abbreviations
Ar
As
Be
Ch
Co
Cy
D
G
Pa
P
Sk
Te
Th
Esc

Arenicolites
Asterosoma
Bergaueria
Chondrites
Conichnus
Cylindrichnus
Diplocraterion
Gyrolithes
Palaeophycus
Planolites
Skolithos
Teichichnus
Thalassinoides
escape traces

88

ARENICOLITES

Description: Simple, vertical, U-shaped tube with no spreiten between the limbs. Exterior walls
generally smooth with no ornamentation; apertures of one or both tubes may flare. Generally preserved in vertical relief, but may be recognized in plan view by paired openings.
Interpretation: Arenicolites is interpreted as the dwelling burrow of an annelid worm or a small
crustacean. Probable originators include the common polychaete Arenicola. A predominately suspension feeding behaviour has been postulated for the organisms occupying such structures.
Environmental Considerations: Arenicolites is generally associated with sandy substrates in low
energy shoreface or sandy tidal flats. It is a common element of the Skolithos ichnofacies. When found
in great numbers it can be indicative of mixed tidal flats.

Figure 68

89

Figure 69

90

ASTEROSOMA

Description: Star-shaped burrow system consisting of radial, bulbous arms tapering inward towards an elevated centre. The arms tend to be circular in cross-section and consist of concentric lamination of sand and clay, packed around a central tube; the exterior is generally smooth, but may exhibit
longitudinal striae or wrinkles.
Interpretation: Based on the tubular construction of galleries and the details of sediment reworking, Asterosoma has been interpreted as the feeding burrow of a worm. The organism seems to have
probed repeatedly into the sediment to enlarge the gallery and to work more sediment both vertically
and laterally. Exact details of this process remain conjectural. The sediment fill may be related to
feeding/waste disposal functions.
Environmental Considerations: Asterosoma represents a specialized feeding structure and is therefore more commonly associated with fully marine conditions. Generally found in the upper part of the
lower shoreface in association with Rosselia. It is a common form of the Cruziana ichnofacies.

Figure 70

91

Figure 71

92

BERGAUERIA

Description: Cylindrical to hemispherical, plug-shaped, vertical burrows with smooth, unornamented walls; circular to elliptical in cross-section; infillings essentially structureless; rounded base
with or without shallow central depression and radial ridges. The length-diameter ratio generally varies from 2:2 to 2:8.
Interpretation: Bergaueria represents the activities of marine anemones. Behaviourally, two interpretations have been postulated representing either a resting trace or dwelling burrow. Both are probably correct, with lined specimens representing dwellings and unlined specimens (in most cases) representing resting traces.
Environmental Considerations: Generally Bergaueria is indicative of normal marine conditions
on a wave- or tide-dominated shoreface. It is a common element in the Skolithos ichnofacies and can
be found in brackish-water estuarine environments but greatly reduced in size.

Figure 72

93

Figure 73

94

CHONDRITES

Description: Chondrites is a complex rootlike burrow system of regularly branching feeding tunnels of uniform diameter which never anastamose, interpenetrate, or cut across one another. Branching
typically is in the form of side branches (up to five or six orders), which angle off of a higher order or
main tunnel at 30 40 degrees, rather than bifurcating at Y-shaped junctions.
In core, Chondrites commonly appears as an array of tiny elliptical dots where the vertical face of
the core truncates the numerous branching tunnels. In some instances, longitudinal sections through
individual tunnels and broken portions of branches are exposed, and are diagnostic.
Interpretation: Chondrites is probably produced by a vermiform animal dwelling within the structure and moving bodily through the sediment.
Environmental Considerations: Well-known to cut across facies. Chondrites is also a common
element of the Cruziana ichnofacies. It represents a complex feeding behaviour and is therefore more
commonly associated with more fully marine conditions. A monospecific association of Chondrites
may be indicative of low oxygen zones.

Figure 74

95

Figure 75

96

CONICHNUS

Description: Conical, amphora-like, or subcylindrical structures oriented perpendicular to bedding; base may be rounded or may exhibit distinct protuberances. Fillings may reveal patterned internal structures such as chevron laminae but not radial symmetry. The lining, although very thin, constitutes a distinct discontinuity between the infill and the adjacent matrix and is often subject to diagenetic alteration.
Interpretation: Conichnus has been interpreted as representing dwelling and resting structures of
anemone-like organisms.
Environmental Considerations: Conichnus is generally associated with higher energy, sandy, middle shoreface environments deposited under more normal marine conditions and is commonly associated with the Skolithos ichnofacies.

Figure 76

97

Figure 77

98

CYLINDRICHNUS

Description: Cylindrical to conical burrows, straight to gently curved, having multiple concentrically layered walls. Orientations range from vertical to horizontal, but never branched.
Interpretation: The most diagnostic feature of this form is its multiple lining which has been attributed to the activity of the organism in its burrow, responding to a slow, continuous sedimentation rate.
As sediment entered the burrow, it was pressed against the burrow wall. Multilined burrow walls have
been recognized in structures produced by polychaete worms and crustaceans.
Environmental Considerations: Cylindrichnus is a common element of the Skolithos ichnofacies
and the proximal end of the Cruziana ichnofacies, frequently associated with sandy tidal flats and is a
typical element, with Skolithos, in lateral accretion deposits within estuarine channels.

Figure 78

99

Figure 79

100

DIPLOCRATERION

Description: Vertical, U-shaped spreiten burrows. Apertures of the tubes may be cylindrical or
funnel-shaped; limbs of the U may be parallel or divergent. In some instances they may appear in core
as dumbbell-shaped burrows in plan view. The paired circular openings are joined by a horizontal band
of reworked sediment corresponding to the spreite.
Interpretation: Diplocraterion is the dwelling burrow of a suspension-feeding organism. Probable
originators include polychaete worms, and crustaceans (amphipods).
Environmental Considerations: Diplocraterion is a common element in the distal end of the Skolithos ichnofacies in middle shoreface settings. It is also common on sandy tidal flats and in estuarine
channel deposits.

Figure 80

101

GYROLITHES

Description: Dextrally or sinistrally coiled burrows up to several centimetres high. Whorls are
typically several millimetres in diameter, but commonly less than a millimetre in estuarine environments. In core, Gyrolithes appears as layers of paired tunnels converging upwards or downwards.
Environmental Considerations: Gyrolithes occurs in wave-dominated bays and splay sands. It has
a tolerance of very low salinity environments and is commonly found in a high density monospecific
assemblage. In brackish environments they may appear as masses of needle-like burrows, whose coiled
nature is only evident under a hand lens. Gyrolithes is commonly found in lateral accretion deposits
within estuarine channels.

Figure 81

102

Figure 82

103

PALAEOPHYCUS

Description: Infrequently branched, distinctly lined, cylindrical, horizontal to inclined burrows in


which the sediment fill typically is of the same lithology and texture as the host stratum. Wall linings
may be smooth or longitudinally striated
Interpretation: Palaeophycus is distinguished from the morphologically similar ichnogenus Planolites primarily by wall linings and the character of burrow fills. Fills of Palaeophycus represent passive, gravity-induced sedimentation within open, lined burrows; the fillings therefore tend to be of the
same composition as the surrounding matrix. Passively filled, lined burrows are typically interpreted
as dwelling structures.
Environmental Considerations: Palaeophycus is associated with the Skolithos ichnofacies in both
high energy and low energy shoreface environments and is commonly found with Planolites or Macaronichnus. It can also be found in episodic storm sands and brackish-water assemblages.

Figure 83

104

Figure 84

105

PLANOLITES

Description: Unlined, rarely branched, straight to tortuous, smooth to irregularly walled or annulated burrows, circular to elliptical in cross-section, of variable dimensions and configurations; fillings
essentially structureless, differing in lithology from the host rock.
Interpretation: Planolites is distinguished from Palaeophycus primarily by having unlined walls
and burrow fills differing in texture from that of the adjacent rock. Fills may differ in fabric, composition, as well as colour. Fills of Planolites represent sediment processed by the tracemaker, especially
through deposit-feeding activities of bottom-feeders and wormlike organisms.
Environmental Considerations: Non-diagnostic. Found in virtually all environments from freshwater to deep marine.

Figure 85

106

Figure 86

107

SKOLITHOS

Description: Single entrance, cylindrical to subcylindrical, straight to curved, vertical to subvertical, unbranched burrows that do not cross over or interpenetrate. The shafts are either lined or unlined
with generally smooth walls. The infill is typically structureless.
Interpretation: In behaviour, Skolithos represents the dwelling burrows of suspension-feeding organisms or passive carnivores. A multitude of probable originators have been postulated, including
worms and insect larvae.
Environmental Considerations: Lined specimens of Skolithos are generally associated with marine or brackish environments. It is an element of the Skolithos ichnofacies, but because Skolithos can
be constructed by many different kinds of organisms it is found in virtually every type of environment
from marine to non-marine.

Figure 87

108

Figure 88

109

TEICHICHNUS

Description: Teichichnus appears in slabbed core sections as a vertical series of tightly packed
concave-up or (more rarely) concave-down, laminae. Longitudinal sections show wavy, long laminae
that usually merge upwards at the ends. It is formed by the upward migration of a horizontal to subhorizontal tunnel produced by an organism moving back and forth in the same vertical plane, probing
the sediment for food.
Interpretation: The Teichichnus-producing animal appears to be a deposit-feeding, wormlike organism, which migrated upward in its burrow to keep pace with sedimentation.
Environmental Consideration: Teichichnus is commonly found in lower shoreface to offshore
environments associated with the Cruziana ichnofacies and is prevalent in low energy lagoon/bay
settings characterized by brackish-water conditions. It is never associated with freshwater.

Figure 89

110

Figure 90

111

THALASSINOIDES

Description: Relatively large burrow systems consisting of smooth-walled, cylindrical components. Branches are Y- or T-shaped and are typically enlarged at points of bifurcation. Burrow dimensions may vary within a given system and cross-sections range from cylindrical, half-moon shaped, to
elliptical. Most systems are essentially horizontal with some irregularly inclined.
Interpretation: Very thinly-lined to essentially unlined burrow systems are characteristic of finegrained coherent substrates, in which wall reinforcement is unnecessary. Structureless to parallel-laminated or graded burrow fills represent passive (gravity-induced) sedimentation, whereas meniscate or
chevron-laminated sediments represent active backfilling by the tracemaker. Thalassinoides is generally regarded as a dwelling and/or feeding burrow of a decapod crustacean (shrimp). Enlarged junction
points are often used as turning points for the organism, or as breeding chambers.
Environmental Consideration: Thalassinoides is associated with the Cruziana ichnofacies in lower
shoreface to offshore environments and may also be found in low diversity, brackish-water associations.

Figure 91

112

Figure 92

113

ESCAPE TRACES

Sedimentation is the most frequent cause for escape movements. Each new layer of sediment
separates the marine organism living on the sea floor or within the sediment from the oxygen-rich
water above the sea floor. After the animal is covered by sediment it can only survive if it succeeds in
escaping upward and reaching the new surface. Many fossils are perfectly preserved for the very
reason they failed in this attempt.
Escaping locomotion from sedimentation usually causes perturbed burrowing textures. Escape
structures are not consolidated, although gastropods do secrete a mucus layer to crawl on, leaving
behind a near-vertical digging trail. Escape trails may rarely spiral upward. Complete destruction of a
bed may occur when the shells of gastropods cut across bedding layers. In escape traces laminae are
deformed downward compared to water escape structures where laminae may also be convoluted but
are deformed upward.

Figure 93

114

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