At least four horizons of enhanced anoxia (anoxic horizons; AHs) are recognized in the uppermost Eifelian–Middle Frasnian mudrock-dominated strata of the Mackenzie Valley and Peel area of NW Canada. Aluminium-normalized Mo and U logs in two cored sections reveal AH-I at the Eifelian–Givetian boundary, AH-II in basal Frasnian, and AH-III and AH-IV bundled in the Middle Frasnian interval. These four horizons are characterized by attenuated siliciclastic components. Spectral gamma-ray K + Th and U are the best tools to trace these horizons in wells and outcrops. AHs are biostratigraphically correlated with ‘black-shale events’ in several basins of the world. Depositional environment is depicted as a stratified basin where the water-column chemocline defined co-sedimentation of anoxic mudrocks in topographic lows and oxic grey shales and carbonate banks on seafloor elevations. Based on inductively coupled plasma elemental data from 1687 samples, siliciclastic-lean basinal mudrock units that host AHs are strongly enriched in Mo (median EFMo ∼ 97–172 EFMo/EFU ≈ (3–3.5) × SW, where EFMo and EFU are respectively Al-normalized Mo and U in enrichment factor notation and SW is average present-day seawater value) compared with siliciclastic-rich units (median EFMo ∼ 17–37) and show strong EFU/EFMo covariation (r ≈ 0.8 in Canol Formation and Bluefish Member). Supported by a lack of geological evidence for an oceanographic barrier, this enrichment indicates unrestricted water exchange with Panthalassa. At the same time, development of oligotrophy is indicated by a lack of P enrichment and weak to non-existent enrichment in Zn and Cu. These features are reconciled through a model by earlier workers that involves a global shift to a warm greenhouse mode with slowed oceanic convection, expanded oxygen minimum zones and a failure of nutrient resupply from the upwelling. The onset of mass degassing in continental large igneous provinces represents a potential trigger for this mid-Devonian shift. Devonian black-shale events in this scenario represent genuine oceanic anoxic events marking hothouse episodes in their nascent form.

Supplementary material: Details of methods, analytical protocols and data scatterplots, stratigraphic cross-sections showing traceability of anoxic horizons, and inductively coupled plasma elemental and Rock-Eval 6 data used in this study are available at: https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.c.4212428

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