Fluvial sands in the Orinoco River drainage basin fall into three main compositional groupings: (1) sands of subarkose and arkose composition, from high-relief parts of the Guayana Shield, where crystalline rocks are exposed; (2) sands of litharenite and sub-litharenite composition from the active orogenic belt at the western and northwestern margins of the drainage basin, and in those parts of the Llanos (Andean foreland basin) proximal to the mountain belt; and (3) sands of quartz-arenite composition, widespread throughout the remainder of the basin. Multicycle sands of quartz-arenite composition are produced from platform cover on parts of the elevated shield and from uplifted foreland-basin fill in the eastern Llanos. First-cycle sands of quartz-arenite composition are produced from granitic rocks on low-relief regions of the Guayana Shield and from reworked Holocene alluvium in parts of the western Llanos distal to the orogenic terranes.
Erosion in the Orinoco River drainage basin may be described in terms of transport-limited and weathering-limited denudation regimes. In active orogenic terranes and in parts of the elevated shield, transport processes can remove weathered material as rapidly as it is produced by chemical weathering. Thin soils and short soil-mineral residence time result in sands that are incompletely chemically weathered and accurately reflect source-rock composition. In the orogenic terranes, subtle variations in source-rock lithology are preserved in sand composition. In contrast, in low-relief parts of the Guayana Shield and on flat erosion surfaces of the upland shield, weathering exceeds the rate at which transport processes can remove weathered material. Thick soils accumulate, soil-mineral residence time is long, and detritus is highly altered chemically. On much of the lowland Guayana Shield, upper soil layers consist of nearly pure quartz sand that erodes to produce first-cycle fluvial sand of quartz-arenite composition.
Chemically weathered orogenically derived sand enters the Orinoco River on the left bank, while feldspathic shield-derived sand enters on the right bank. This geometry is responsible for the nearly total lack of longitudinal variation in sand composition along the 1,400-km length of the Orinoco River mainstem. Except in the upper 100 km of the Orinoco River mainstem, cross-channel heterogeneity in sand composition is also modest. Nevertheless, a weighted linear least-squares modeling approach suggests that sand moves down the Orinoco River mainstem in distinct pulses, perhaps corresponding to times of accelerated erosion in headwater regions. Because rivers that head in the orogenic terranes and traverse the Llanos contribute more than 99% of the sand in the lower Orinoco River mainstem, the composition of this sand is dominated by chemically weathered sands from the Llanos. The Orinoco River—the third largest river in the world—delivers first-cycle sands of quartz-arenite composition to its delta.