Despite long-standing recognition of high-amplitude, high-frequency sea-level variation resulting from repeated glaciations of Gondwanaland, recorded as “cyclothems” in late Paleozoic strata worldwide, major questions remain concerning their precise timing and expression in the stratigraphic record. A deep meandering canyon in southern Utah cut by the San Juan River exposes cyclic Pennsylvanian (Moscovian) carbonate strata of the Paradox Formation of the Hermosa Group in three dimensions. These peritidally to subtidally deposited strata archive a long record of Pennsylvanian sea-level change that was important to the early development of sequence stratigraphy. Their interpretation with respect to sea level is complicated by lateral variations in sequence thickness and a lack, until recently, of precise geochronologic control. In this study, we use Structure from Motion photogrammetry (SfM) to quantify lateral stratigraphic variation in three dimensions (3D) in the inner gorge of the canyon, then integrate these data with published U-Pb geochronology and conodont biostratigraphy to assess magnitude and temporal significance of depositional cyclicity. 3D SfM models were used to precisely measure the thickness of sixteen depositional sequences in the Barker Creek and Akah intervals, which constitute the lower Paradox Formation. Bioherms ranging from 2–18 m in relief occur within five sequences, and are typically constructed by either microbialites, the sponge Chaetetes, or a mixture of both. On average, bioherms containing Chaetetes are steeper and thicker than those without them. Bioherm-generated bathymetric highs can influence overlying strata in several characteristic ways: 1) by serving as a nucleation site for bioherms in overlying sequences, 2) sequences often onlap bioherms, leading to local stratal truncations, and in some cases, 3) progradational geometries extend laterally outward from preexisting highs in underlying units. Sequence thickness can vary laterally by up to four times in areas with no obvious bioherms; sequences tend to be thickest in the vicinity of bioherms.
To better understand the potential orbital significance and correlation of Paradox Formation cyclicity to an increasingly precise global record, we projected photogrammetry-generated average sequence thicknesses onto an age framework using conodont and fusulinid biostratigraphy and CA-TIMS U-Pb zircon ages for correlative strata in Eastern Europe. To mitigate the influence of local variability of accumulation rate, SfM-based average sequence thicknesses in the study area were used to construct a relative-sea-level history that can be compared to global records. While regional averaging cannot correct for the unknown durations of sequence-bounding unconformities, underfilled accommodation, or autocyclicity due to shoal migration, it does provide a more quantitative means to consider timescales of deposition and mechanisms responsible for cyclicity than is possible with a one-dimensional section or core. Paradox Formation cyclicity shares a broad similarity with the global record, suggesting coherent glacio-eustatic sea-level variation across several different tectonic regimes. If one explores a thickness to duration relationship in these sequences, it is plausible that eight thin (2–4 m) sequences in the investigated strata (S2.6–11; S3.5–6) have apparent durations ranging from 100 to 350 kyr, within the plausible range of short and long eccentricity. In contrast, four thicker (6–12 m) sequences in the middle Akah interval (S3.1–S3.4) contain deeper-water lithofacies and have apparent durations ranging from 500 to 1000 kyr, implying that they may be down-dip composites of multiple documented cyclothems in the North American Midcontinent, Urals–Donets, and South China Block successions.