Abstract

The northern Athabasca Oil Sands Deposit accumulated on sub-Cretaceous structure partially configured by multistage pre-Cretaceous salt dissolutions in Prairie Evaporite (Middle Devonian) substrate that continued concurrent with deposition of McMurray Formation (Aptian) strata. Dissolution fronts only 250 m below advanced along NW- and NE-oriented fracture–fault lineaments that coalesced into larger salt removal areas. This structural grain was transmitted to the overlying dissected Upper Devonian karst topography draped by lower McMurray braided rivers along a lattice-like channel network. The dominant NW structural grain continued during middle McMurray deposition, with fluvial-estuarine point bars aligned along subparallel tidal channels. Regional salt removal fronts concurrent with middle McMurray deposition migrated north of the Bitumount Trough, resulting in the 200 km2 central collapse. The northern Athabasca Deposit area was configured as a funnel-shaped lower estuary structure consisting of aligned Upper Devonian – lower McMurray fault block terraces that stepped down northward into the central collapse. Sinuous river channels of the upper estuary, constrained along stable substrate of the main paleovalley, flowed northward onto the unstable floor of this funnel-form lower estuary. The main paleovalley fairway branched into multiple tens of kilometres long subparallel fluvio-estuarine tidal channels aligned parallel to the NW structural grain. Sand transport fairways cascaded over the step-down terraces and permitted aggradations of overlying fluvio-tidal point bars to accumulate into giant commercially attractive sand complexes. The internal architecture of these tens of metres thick sand deposits included deposit-wide erosion surfaces resulting from cycles of collapse–subsidence, stabilized substrate and erosion, and renewed subsidence and aggradation.

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