The Miocene Bear Lake Formation is exposed along the coast and mountains of the central Alaska Peninsula and extends offshore as part of the Bristol Bay Basin. The Bear Lake Formation is up to 2360 m (7743 ft) thick in an offshore well and is considered to have the highest reservoir potential in this gas-rich frontier basin. Our new macrofossil and palynological data, collected in the context of measured stratigraphic sections, allow us to construct the first chronostratigraphic framework for this formation. Biostratigraphic age assignments for the numerous, commonly isolated, onshore exposures of the Bear Lake Formation show that deposition initiated sometime before the middle Miocene (15 Ma) and extended to possibly the earliest Pliocene. The bulk of the Bear Lake Formation, however, was deposited during the middle and late Miocene based on our new findings. We interpret the Bear Lake Formation as the product of a regional transgressive estuarine depositional system based on lithofacies analysis. The lower part of the formation is characterized by trough cross-stratified sandstone interbedded with coal and pedogenic mudstone deposited in fluvial and swamp environments of the uppermost parts of the estuarine system. The lower-middle part of the formation is dominated by nonbioturbated, wavy- and flaser-bedded sandstone and siltstone that were deposited in supratidal flat environments. The upper-middle part of the Bear Lake Formation is characterized by inclined heterolithic strata and coquinoid mussel beds that represent tidal channel environments in the middle and lower tracts of the estuarine system. The uppermost part of the formation consists of tabular, bioturbated sandstone with diverse marine invertebrate macrofossil faunas. We interpret this part of the section as representing the subtidal tract of the lower estuarine system and possibly the adjacent shallow inner shelf. A comparison of our depositional framework for the Bear Lake Formation with core and well-log data from onshore and offshore wells indicates that similar Miocene depositional systems existed throughout much of the Bristol Bay Basin. The documented changes in depositional environments within the Bear Lake Formation are also important for understanding upsection changes in the geometries of potential reservoirs.

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