Detrital zircon analysis of the sedimentary record

Fedo Christopher, M.; Sircombe Keith, N.; Rainbird Robert, H.

Reviews in Mineralogy and Geochemistry 53(1): 277-303


ISSN/ISBN: 1529-6466
DOI: 10.2113/0530277
Accession: 018717328

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Detrital zircon analysis has grown from early varietal studies to the application of isotopic and compositional techniques, which have become powerful tools for provenance study and understanding of geological history. The age of detrital zircon, principally via U-Pb isotopic analysis, has become particularly significant. Such ages provide vital constraints on the stratigraphy of sedimentary units. The youngest grains analyzed can, with suitable caution, provide a maximum age of deposition. Age distributions can also illuminate significant disconformities or diachroneities in stratigraphic sections that may not have been previously recognized with conventional techniques. Assuming that the ages of detrital zircon are a suitable proxy for sedimentary provenance, detrital zircon geochronology has been applied to a wide variety of issues over a wide range of geologic time. Detrital zircon grains from Archean sedimentary units has been notably topical with the discovery of>4000 Ma zircons providing a unique opportunity to glean information about the very early Earth. Proterozoic sedimentary units have yielded zircon data of great relevance to tectonic reconstructions notably in various Laurentia and Rodinia models. Detrital zircon data from sedimentary units from the Proterozoic to the present is often accompanied by more detailed geological history and this has served to highlight the complexities involved in provenance analysis. The importance of considering distal provenances, potentially thousands of kilometers from the site of deposition, has been strongly illustrated. The ability of a distal provenance to overwhelm representation of a local source either directly or via intermediate repositories is also a constant concern when interpreting detrital zircon data. Complexities in natural processes are further compounded by sources of artificial bias during the research cycle from field sampling, through mineral separation, to data interpretation and display. As the application of detrital zircon analysis grows, developing procedures to mitigate potential biasing will become increasingly important and steps have been taken in this direction. The future of detrital zircon analysis is promising. Advances in technology mean that the rate of data acquisition is increasing allowing more detailed and thorough analytical programs to be applied to a range of geologic problems. Interest in the history of the earliest Earth and continental reconstructions will provide steady demand, while the potential for integrating other sedimentological and geochemical techniques with isotopic age determination offers future dimensions for detrital zircon analysis.