Empirical scaling relationships between known deepwater siliciclastic submarine fan systems and their linked drainage basins have previously been established for modern to submodern depositional systems and in a few ancient, small-scale basins. Comprehensive mapping in the subsurface Gulf of Mexico basin and geological mapping of the North American drainage network facilitates a more rigorous test of scaling relationships in a continental-size system with multiple mountain source terranes, rivers, deltas, slopes, and abyssal plain fan systems formed over 65 m.y. of geologic time. An immense database of drilled wells and high-quality industry seismic data in this prolific hydrocarbon basin provide the independent measure of deepwater fan distribution and dimensions necessary to test source-to-sink system scaling relationships.
Analysis of over 40 documented deepwater fan and apron systems in the Gulf of Mexico, ranging in age from Paleocene to Pleistocene, reveals that submarine-fan system scales vary predictably with catchment length and area. All fan system run-out lengths, as measured from shelf margin to mapped fan termination, fall in a range of 10%–50% of the drainage basin length, and most are comparable in scale to large (Mississippi River–scale) systems although some smaller fans are present (e.g., Oligocene Rio Bravo system). For larger systems such as those of the Paleocene Wilcox depositional episodes, fan run-out lengths generally fall in the range of 10%–25% of the longest river length. Submarine fan widths, mapped from both seismic reflection data and well control, appear to scale with fan run-out lengths, though with a lower correlation (R2 = 0.40) probably due to uncertainty in mapping fan width in some subsalt settings. Catchment area has a high correlation (R2 = 0.85) with river length, suggesting that fluvial discharge and sediment flux may be primary drivers of ancient fan size.
Validation of these first-order source-to-sink scaling relationships provides a predictive tool in frontier basins with less data. Application to less-constrained early Eocene fan systems of the southern Gulf of Mexico demonstrates the utility for exploration as well as paleogeographic reconstructions of ancient drainage systems. This approach has considerable utility in estimating dimensions of known but poorly constrained submarine fans in the subsurface or exposed in outcrop.