Deposits of lowstand deltas formed on the floor of the Cretaceous Interior seaway of North America are found in the Cenomanian, lower Belle Fourche Member of the Frontier Formation, central Wyoming. Sandstones located in similar distal basin locations, hundreds of kilometers basinward of highstand shoreline deposits, form important hydrocarbon reservoirs isolated within marine shales, but interpretation of their origin has been highly controversial. The distribution, geometry, and internal facies of these sandstones are documented by an extensive outcrop study and regional subsurface correlations to develop genetic facies models for these deposits. This integrated record of lithofacies, ichnofacies, palynofacies, paleocurrent data, bedding relationships, and isolith maps incorporates observations from nearly 100 measured outcrop sections and about 550 subsurface well logs.
Four episodes of sediment progradation and subsequent transgression each left behind gradually upward-coarsening deltaic sandstones that have eroded tops. These deltaic sandstones have a lobate to elongate geometry, basinward-dipping internal clinoform bedding, radiating paleocurrents, a low to moderate degree of shallow-marine burrowing, and show variable wave influence and tidal influence on deposition. Delta plain, paralic, and nonmarine facies have been eroded from the top of deltaic successions. Erosion surfaces capping progradational deltaic successions are the only stratal discontinuities that can be mapped regionally, and they appear to record transgressive ravinement enhanced over areas of structural uplift, compared with lowstand surfaces of erosion, which record the bypass of sediments basinward. Low accommodation during lowstands left little room for sandstones to stack vertically, and successive episodes of delta progradation were offset along strike. More tide-influenced delta deposits formed within shoreline embayments defined by the topography of older wave-influenced delta lobes and subtle syndepositional deformation of the basin floor.
Standard sequence stratigraphic terminology is difficult to use in broad lowstand systems like the Frontier Formation because sandstones do not show simple vertical stacking patterns, major stratal discontinuities can form by processes other than lowstand fluvial erosion, and minor syndepositional deformation of the basin floor exerts a first-order influence on depositional and sediment preservation patterns. Although many basin-distal sandstones have been interpreted to be deposits of offshore bars, shelf-isolated valley fills, and stranded shorelines, the Frontier Formation examples documented here suggest that many of these deposits may be top-eroded deltas formed where rivers delivered sediment to lowstand coastlines. The external geometry and internal heterogeneities of hydrocarbon reservoirs found in these types of deposits reflect processes active on the low accommodation deltaic shoreline, even in cases where subsequent ravinement has significantly truncated the deposits during transgression.