Interpretations of Pennsylvanian sedimentation and peat accumulation commonly use examples from the Appalachian basin because of the excellent outcrops and large reserve of coal (>100 billion metric tons) in the region. Particularly controversial is the origin of Lower and lower Middle Pennsylvanian quartzose sandstones; beach-barrier, marine-bar, tidal-strait, and fluvial models all have been applied to a series of sand bodies along the western outcrop margin of the basin. Interpretations of these sandstones and their inferred lateral relationships are critical for understanding the relative degree of eustatic, tectonic, and climatic controls on Early Pennsylvanian sedimentation.

Cross sections utilizing >1000 subsurface records and detailed sedimentological analysis of the Livingston Conglomerate, Rockcastle Sandstone, Corbin Sandstone, and Pine Creek sandstone (an informal member) of the Breathitt Group were used to show that each of the principal quartzose sandstones on the margin of the central Appalachian basin contains both fluvial and marginal marine facies.

The four sandstones are fluvially dominated and are inferred to represent successive bed-load trunk systems of the Appalachian foreland. Base-level rise and an associated decrease in extra-basinal sediment at the end of each fluvial episode led to the development of local estuaries and marine reworking of the tops of the sand belts. Each of the sand belts is capped locally by a coal, regardless of whether the upper surfaces of the sand belts are of fluvial or estuarine origin, suggesting allocyclic controls on deposition. Peats were controlled by a tropical ever-wet climate, which also influenced sandstone composition through weathering of stored sands in slowly aggrading braidplains.

Recurrent stacking of thick, coarse-grained, fluvial deposits with extra-basinal quartz pebbles; dominance of bed-load fluvial–lowstand deposits over mixed-load, estuarine-transgressive deposits; thinning of sand belts around tectonic highs and along faults; cratonward shift and amalgamation of successive sand belts on the margin of the basin; and truncation of successive sand belts toward the fault-bound margin of the basin are interpreted as regional responses to Alleghenian tectonism, inferred to have been the dominant control on accommodation space and sediment flux in the Early Pennsylvanian basin.

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