High-quality three-dimensional seismic data acquired in the central Tabei Uplift, Tarim Basin, western China, provide a rare opportunity to characterize in exceptional detail the three-dimensional geomorphology of a deeply buried (5500–6500 m [18,045–21,325 ft]) Ordovician unconformity and the related paleokarst drainage system. An integrated approach was applied that emphasized integration of seismic data with available conventional core, wireline logs, and age-equivalent outcrops. The exceptional quality of the seismic data allowed a seismic detection limit of karstified features of less than 75 × 75 m (246 × 246 ft) horizontally and 6 m (20 ft) vertically.
Interpreted geomorphologic and depositional elements include fluvial channels and canyons, fluvial valleys, sinkholes, and tower karsts and hills. The modern tower karst-drainage system in Guilin, China, is very similar to the mapped Ordovician karst-drainage system and is used as a modern analog. The interaction between the surface karst-drainage system and the shallow-subsurface cave-passage system is evidenced by the observation that surface canyons appear to initiate in areas associated with intense sinkhole development. Also, surface river valleys tend to correspond to dip-oriented surface depressions partly related to near-surface cave collapse. During burial into the deeper subsurface, the combination of intrastratal collapse (karstified strata) and suprastratal collapse (postkarst-deposited strata) created large damage zones hundreds of meters thick and kilometers wide. Coalesced-collapsed paleocave systems can be interpreted from the unique circular pattern of faults (observed in map view) that are associated with seismic bright spots.