Carbon isotope data from Upper Cambrian sections in three Laurentian basins in northern Utah, central Iowa, and western Newfoundland record a large positive δ13C excursion (SPICE event) of up to + 5‰ Peak δ13C ratios are well dated by trilobite collections to the middle of the Steptoean Stage (Dunderbergia Zone) and occur during maximum regression associated with formation of the Sauk II-Sauk III subsequence boundary on the North American craton. Maximum regression was marked by an influx of quartz sand into carbonate-platform settings in all three widely separated basins. In northern Utah, this quartz sand formed a thick sequence known as the Worm Creek Quartzite, which marks a conspicuous interruption of carbonate deposition during the Middle to Late Cambrian in the region. In western Newfoundland, the thickness of the quartz sand unit is much reduced but still marks a brief shutdown of the carbonate factory that is unique to the Cambrian shelf succession of the area. In the central Iowa area of the cratonic interior, an upward-shallowing carbonate succession culminates in cross-stratified trilobite grainstones at the peak of the SPICE in Dunderbergia Zone time, and the lowest point on the relative-sea-level curve is associated with the occurrence of coarse quartz sand derived from the encroaching shoreface.
Although it is difficult to determine precisely the departure from baseline δ13C that marks the beginning of the SPICE excursion in the stratigraphic successions analyzed, our results are consistent with a rise and subsequent fall in δ13C tracking a major regressive-transgressive event recorded across northern Laurentia. The correlation of a major δ13C excursion with regression is similar to that described for the Late Ordovician, for which the pattern has been attributed to either increased carbonate relative to terrigenous weathering rates as ice sheets covered up organic-matter-containing silicates at high latitudes or high productivity and organic-carbon burial driven by oceanic overturn. The lack of known Steptoean-age ice sheets that could have affected the ratio of carbonate to silicate weathering rates suggests that organic-carbon burial was the likely cause of the SPICE event. We suggest that increased weathering and erosion rates during relative sea-level fall (Sauk II-III) increased the burial fraction of organic carbon in an expanded region of fine-grained siliciclastic deposits in shelf and upper slope environments during the Steptoean.