The Great Preglacial “Bell River” of North America: Detrital Zircon Evidence for Oligocene–Miocene Fluvial Connections Between the Colorado Plateau and Labrador Sea
How to Cite
The idea of a great pre-glacial river that drained much of North America into the Arctic waters of modern Canada was first suggested in 1895 by Robert A. Bell. In the 1970s, petroleum exploration in Hudson Strait and the Labrador Sea located the massive, submerged delta of what is now known as the Bell River. Reconstructions suggest that three main branches of the Bell River joined up near modern Hudson Bay. The eastern branch largely drained the Canadian Shield, but the central and western branches had headwaters in the Cordilleran orogenic belt and its foreland in the present-day U.S. and northwestern Canada, respectively.
We present new detrital zircon U–Pb data from Lower Oligocene and Lower Miocene sand from an exploration well in the Saglek delta of the northern Labrador Sea. In conjunction with other detrital zircon results from the Labrador Sea (and elsewhere) these data record the configuration and history of this continental-scale drainage basin in more detail. Mesozoic and younger detrital zircon grains (< 250 Ma) are subordinate to Precambrian age groupings, but Cenozoic populations become more abundant during the Oligocene, suggesting that the basin had expanded into areas now occupied by the Colorado Plateau and the Basin-and-Range Province. Proterozoic and Phanerozoic detrital zircon grain populations in Saglek delta sediments are similar to those of the Pliocene Colorado River. The results support an earlier idea that initial incision of the Grand Canyon and denudation of the Colorado Plateau were associated with a north-flowing paleo-river that fed into the Bell River basin. This contribution continued until the Pliocene capture of this ancestral river by the Gulf of California basin, after which the excavation of the modern Grand Canyon was completed. The Bell River drainage basin was later blocked by the expansion of Pleistocene ice sheets.
- Balkwill, H.R., McMillan, N.J., MacLean, B., Williams, G.L., and Srivastava, S.P., 1990, Geology of the Labrador Shelf, Baffin Bay, and Davis Strait, in Keen, M.J., and Williams, G.L., eds., Geology of the Continental Margin of Eastern Canada: Geological Society of America, DNAG, Geology of North America, v. I2, p. 293–348, https://doi.org/10.1130/DNAG-GNA-I1.293.
- Bell, R., 1895, A great pre-glacial river in northern Canada, in Geographical Notes: Scottish Geographical Magazine, v. 11, p. 368.
- Benyon, C., Leier, A.L., Leckie, D.A., Hubbard, S.M., and Gehrels, G.E., 2016, Sandstone provenance and insights into the paleogeography of the McMurray Formation from detrital zircon geochronology, Athabasca Oil Sands, Canada: American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin, v. 100, p. 269–287, https://doi.org/10.1306/10191515029.
- Best, M.G., Christiansen, E.H., and Gromme, S., 2013, Introduction: The 36–18 Ma southern Great Basin, USA, ignimbrite province and flareup: Swarms of subduction-related supervolcanoes: Geosphere, v. 9, p. 260–274, https://doi.org/10.1130/GES00870.1.
- Blum, M.D., and Pecha, M., 2014, Mid-Cretaceous to Paleocene North American drainage reorganization from detrital zircons: Geology, v. 42, p. 607–610, https://doi.org/10.1130/G35513.1.
- Blum, M.D., Milliken, K.T., Pecha, M.A., Snedden, J.W., Frederick, B.C., and Galloway, W.E., 2017, Detrital-zircon records of Cenomanian, Paleocene, and Oligocene Gulf of Mexico drainage integration and sediment routing: Implications for scales of basin-floor fans: Geosphere, v. 13, p. 2169–2205, https://doi.org/10.1130/GES01410.1.
- Brookes, I.A., 2016, “All that glitters…:” The scientific and financial ambitions of Robert Bell at the Geological Survey of Canada: Geoscience Canada, v. 43, p. 147–158, https://doi.org/10.12789/geocanj.2016.43.098.
- Cather, S.M., Connell, S.D., Chamberlin, R.M., McIntosh, W.C., Jones, G.E., Potochnik, A.R., Lucas, S.G., and Johnson, P.S., 2008, The Chuska erg: Paleogeomorphic and paleoclimatic implications of an Oligocene sand sea on the Colorado Plateau: Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 120, p. 13–33, https://doi.org/10.1130/B26081.1.
- Cather, S.M., Chapin, C.E., and Kelley, S.A., 2012, Diachronous episodes of Cenozoic erosion in southwestern North America and their relationship to surface uplift, paleoclimate, paleodrainage, and paleoaltimetry: Geosphere, v. 8, p. 1177–1206, https://doi.org/10.1130/GES00801.1.
- Cawood P.A, Hawkesworth, C.J., and Dhuime, B., 2012, Detrital zircon record and tectonic setting: Geology, v. 40, p. 875–878, https://doi.org/10.1130/G32945.1.
- Cecil, M.R., Rusmore, M.E., Gehrels, G.E., Woodsworth, G.J., Stowell, H.H., Yokelson, I.N., Chisom, C., Trautman, M., and Homan, E., 2018, Along-strike variation in the magmatic tempo of the Coast Mountains batholith, British Columbia, and implications for processes controlling episodicity in arcs: Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, v. 19, p. 4274–4289, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018GC007874.
- Corradino, J.I., Pullen, A., Leier, A.L., Barbeau Jr., D.L., Scher, H.D., Weislogel, A., Bruner, A., Leckie, D.A., and Currie, L.D., 2022, Ancestral trans−North American Bell River system recorded in late Oligocene to early Miocene sediments in the Labrador Sea and Canadian Great Plains: Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 134, p. 130–144, https://doi.org/10.1130/B35903.1.
- Cummings, D.I., Russell, H.A.J., and Sharpe, D.R., 2012, Buried-valley aquifers in the Canadian prairies: Geology, hydrogeology, and origin: Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, v. 49, p. 987–1004, https://doi.org/10.1139/e2012-041.
- Davis, S.J., Dickinson, W.R., George E. Gehrels, G.E., Spencer, J.E., Lawton, T.F., and Carroll, A.R., 2010, The Paleogene California River: Evidence of Mojave-Uinta paleodrainage from U–Pb ages of detrital zircons: Geology, v. 38, p. 931–934, https://doi.org/10.1130/G31250.1.
- DeCelles, P.G., and Graham, S.A., 2015, Cyclical processes in the North American Cordilleran orogenic system: Geology, v. 43, p. 499–502, https://doi.org/10.1130/g36482.1.
- Dickie, K., Keen, C.E., Williams, G.L., and Dehler, S.A., 2011, Tectonostratigraphic evolution of the Labrador margin, Atlantic Canada: Marine and Petroleum Geology, v. 28, p. 1663–1675, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpetgeo.2011.05.009.
- Dickinson, W.R., 2004, Evolution of the North American Cordillera: Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, v. 32, p. 13–45, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.earth.32.101802.120257.
- Dickinson, W.R., and Gehrels, G.E., 2008, Sediment delivery to the Cordilleran foreland basin: Insights from U–Pb ages of detrital zircons in Upper Jurassic and Cretaceous strata of the Colorado Plateau: American Journal of Science, v. 308, p. 1041–1082, https://doi.org/10.2475/10.2008.01.
- Dorsey, R.J., Fluette, A., McDougall, K., Housen, B.A., and Janecke, S.U., 2005, Terminal Miocene arrival of Colorado River sand in the Salton Trough, southern California: Implications for initiation of the lower Colorado River drainage (Abstract): Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs, v. 37, no. 7, p. 109.
- Duk-Rodkin, A., and Hughes, O.L., 1994, Tertiary–Quaternary drainage of the pre-glacial MacKenzie basin: Quaternary International, v. 22–23, p. 221–241, https://doi.org/10.1016/1040-6182(94)90015-9.
- Enachescu, M.E., 2011, Petroleum exploration opportunities in Saglek basin, Area “C” – Labrador offshore region call for bids NL11-03: Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Natural Resources. Available from: https://www.gov.nl.ca/iet/files/invest-enachescunl11-03.pdf.
- Fensome, R.A., 2015, Palynological analysis of two Labrador Shelf wells: Petro Canada et al. Rut H-11 and Eastcan et al. Karlsefni A-13: Geological Survey of Canada Open File 7738, 20 p., https://doi.org/10.4095/295616.
- Fensome, R.A., Nøhr-Hansen, H., and Williams, G.L., 2016, Cretaceous and Cenozoic dinoflagellate cysts and other palynomorphs from the western and eastern margins of the Labrador–Baffin Seaway: Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS) Bulletin, v. 36, p. 1–143, https://doi.org/10.34194/geusb.v36.4397.
- Flowers, R.M., and Farley, K.A., 2012, Apatite 4He/3He and (U–Th)/He evidence for an ancient Grand Canyon: Science, v. 338, p. 1616–1619, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1229390.
- Flowers, R.M., Wernicke, B.P., and Farley, K.A., 2008, Unroofing, incision, and uplift history of the southwestern Colorado Plateau from apatite (U–Th)/He thermochronometry: Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 120, p. 571–587, https://doi.org/10.1130/B26231.1.
- Galloway, W.E., Whiteaker, T.L., and Ganey-Curry, P., 2011, History of Cenozoic North American drainage basin evolution, sediment yield, and accumulation in the Gulf of Mexico basin: Geosphere, v. 7, p. 938–973, https://doi.org/10.1130/GES00647.1.
- Gehrels, G., 2014, Detrital zircon U–Pb geochronology applied to tectonics: Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, v. 42, p. 127–149, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-earth-050212-124012.
- Gehrels, G., and Pecha, M., 2014, Detrital zircon U–Pb geochronology and Hf isotope geochemistry of Paleozoic and Triassic passive margin strata of western North America: Geosphere, v. 10, p. 49–65, https://doi.org/10.1130/GES00889.1.
- Gehrels, G., Rusmore, M., Woodsworth, G., Crawford, M., Andronicos, C., Hollister, L., Patchett, J., Ducea, M., Butler, R., Klepeis, K., Davidson, C., Friedman, R., Haggart, J., Mahoney, B., Crawford, W., Pearson, D., and Girardi, J., 2009, U–Th–Pb geochronology of the Coast Mountains batholith in north-coastal British Columbia: Constraints on age and tectonic evolution: Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 121, p. 1341–1361, https://doi.org/10.1130/B26404.1.
- Gehrels, G.E., Blakey, R., Karlstrom, K.E., Timmons, J.M., Dickinson, B., and Pecha, M., 2011, Detrital zircon U–Pb geochronology of Paleozoic strata in the Grand Canyon, Arizona: Lithosphere, v. 3, p. 183–200, https://doi.org/10.1130/L121.1.
- Gibson, T.M., Faehnrich, K., Busch, J.F., McClelland, W.C., Schmitz, M.D., and Strauss, J.V., 2021, A detrital zircon test of large-scale terrane displacement along the Arctic margin of North America: Geology, v. 49, p. 545–550, https://doi.org/10.1130/G48336.1.
- Hiscott, R.N., 1984, Clay mineralogy and clay-mineral provenance of Cretaceous and Paleogene strata, Labrador and Baffin shelves: Bulletin of Canadian Petroleum Geology, v. 32, p. 272–280, https://doi.org/10.1016/0198-0254(85)92816-X.
- Hoffman, P.F., 1989, Precambrian geology and tectonic history of North America, in Bally, A.W., and Palmer, A.R., eds., The Geology of North America—an Overview: Geological Society of America, v. A, p. 447–512, https://doi.org/10.1130/DNAG-GNA-A.447.
- Howard, A.D., 1958, Drainage evolution in northeastern Montana and northwestern North Dakota: Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 69, p. 575–588, https://doi.org/10.1130/0016-7606(1958)69%5B575:DEINMA%5D2.0.CO;2.
- Hutter, A.D., and Beranek, L.P., 2020, Provenance of Upper Jurassic to Lower Cretaceous synrift strata in the Terra Nova oil field, Jeanne d’Arc basin, offshore Newfoundland: A new detrital zircon U–Pb–Hf reference frame for the Atlantic Canadian margin: American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin, v. 104, p. 2325–2349, https://doi.org/10.1306/02232018241.
- Jackson, L., 2018, The Paleo-Bell River: North America’s vanished Amazon (Online): Earth Magazine, American Geosciences Institute. Available from: https://www.earthmagazine.org/article/paleo-bell-river-north-americas-vanished-amazon/.
- Jauer, C.D., and Budkewitsch, P., 2010, Old marine seismic and new satellite radar data: Petroleum exploration of northwest Labrador Sea, Canada: Marine and Petroleum Geology, v. 27, p. 1379–1394, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpetgeo.2010.03.003.
- Jauer, C.D., Oakey, G.N., Williams, G., and Wielens, J.B.W.H., 2014, Saglek Basin in the Labrador Sea, east coast Canada: Stratigraphy, structure and petroleum systems: Bulletin of Canadian Petroleum Geology, v. 62, p. 232–260, https://doi.org/10.2113/gscpgbull.62.4.232.
- Karlstrom, K.E., Crow, R., Crossey, L.J., Coblentz, D., and Van Wijk, J.W., 2008, Model for tectonically driven incision of the younger than 6 Ma Grand Canyon: Geology, v. 36, p. 835–838, https://doi.org/10.1130/G25032A.1.
- Kimbrough, D.L., Grove, M., Gehrels, G.E., Dorsey, R.J., Howard, K.A., Lovera, O., Aslan, A., House, P.K., and Pearthree, P.A., 2015, Detrital zircon U–Pb provenance of the Colorado River: A 5 m.y. record of incision into cover strata overlying the Colorado Plateau and adjacent regions: Geosphere, v. 11, p. 1719–1748, https://doi.org/10.1130/GES00982.1.
- Kuiper, Y.D., and Hepburn, J.C., 2021, Detrital zircon populations of the eastern Laurentian margin in the Appalachians: Geology, v. 49, p. 233–237, https://doi.org/10.1130/G48012.1.
- Laskowski, A.K., DeCelles, P.G., and Gehrels, G.E., 2013, Detrital zircon geochronology of Cordilleran retroarc foreland basin strata, western North America: Tectonics, v. 32, p. 1027–1048, https://doi.org/10.1002/tect.20065.
- Leckie, D.A., 2006, Tertiary fluvial gravels and evolution of the western Canadian prairie landscape: Sedimentary Geology, v. 190, p. 139–158, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sedgeo.2006.05.019.
- Leckie, D., and Cheel, R., 1989, The Cypress Hills Formation (Upper Eocene to Miocene): a semi-arid braidplain resulting from intrusive uplift: Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, v. 26, p. 1918–1931, https://doi.org/10.1139/E89-162.
- Lee, J.P., Stockli, D.F., Kelley, S.A., Pederson, J.L., Karlstrom, K.E., and Ehlers, T.A., 2013, New thermochronometric constraints on the Tertiary landscape evolution of the central and eastern Grand Canyon, Arizona: Geosphere, v. 9, p. 216–228, https://doi.org/10.1130/GES00842.1.
- Leier, A.L., and Gehrels, G.E., 2011, Continental-scale detrital zircon provenance signatures in Lower Cretaceous strata, western North America: Geology, v. 39, p. 399–402, https://doi.org/10.1130/G31762.1.
- Lucchitta, I., 1972, Early history of the Colorado River in the Basin and Range Province: Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 83, p. 1933–1948, https://doi.org/10.1130/0016-7606(1972)83%5B1933:EHOTCR%5D2.0.CO;2.
- Lucchitta, I., Holm, R.F., and Lucchitta, B.K., 2011, A Miocene river in northern Arizona and its implications for the origin of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon: GSA Today, v. 21, p. 4–10, https://doi.org/10.1130/G119A.1.
- McMillan, J.N., 1973, Shelves of the Labrador Sea and Baffin Bay, Canada: Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists Memoir, v. 1, p. 473–515.
- Nelson, J.L., Colpron, M., and Israel, S., 2013, The Cordillera of British Columbia, Yukon, and Alaska: Tectonics and metallogeny, in Colpron, M., Bissig, T., Rusk, B.G., Thompson, J.F.H., eds., Tectonics, Metallogeny, and Discovery: The North American Cordillera and Similar Accretionary Settings: Society of Economic Geologists Special Publication, v. 17, p. 59–109, https://doi.org/10.5382/SP.17.03.
- Pe-Piper, G., Triantafyllidis, S., and Piper, D.J.W., 2008, Geochemical identification of clastic sediment provenance from known sources of similar geology: the Cretaceous Scotian Basin Canada: Journal of Sedimentary Research, v. 78, p. 595–607, https://doi.org/10.2110/jsr.2008.067.
- Quinn, G.M., Hubbard, S.M., van Drecht, R., Guest, B., Matthews, W.A., and Hadlari, T., 2016, Record of orogenic cyclicity in the Alberta foreland basin, Canadian Cordillera: Lithosphere, v. 8, p. 317–332, https://doi.org/10.1130/L531.1.
- Rainbird, R.H., Rayner, N.M., Hadlari, T., Heaman, L.M., Ielpi, A., Turner, E.C., and MacNaughton, R.B., 2017, Zircon provenance data record the lateral extent of pancontinental, early Neoproterozoic rivers and erosional unroofing history of the Grenville orogen: Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 129, p. 1408–1423, https://doi.org/10.1130/B31695.1.
- Raines, M.K., Hubbard, S.M., Kukulski, R.B., Leier A.L, and Gehrels, G.E., 2013, Sediment dispersal in an evolving foreland: Detrital zircon geochronology from Upper Jurassic and lowermost Cretaceous strata, Alberta Basin, Canada: Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 125, p. 741–755, https://doi.org/10.1130/B30671.1.
- Sears, J.W., 2013, Late Oligocene–Early Miocene Grand Canyon: A Canadian connection?: GSA Today, v. 23, p. 4–10, https://doi.org/10.1130/GSATG178A.1.
- Slatterly, J., Cobban, W.A., McKinney, K.C., Harries, P.J., and Sandness, A.L., 2013, Early Cretaceous to Paleocene paleogeography of the Western Interior Seaway: The interaction of eustasy and tectonism: Wyoming Geological Association Guidebook, v. 68, p. 22–60, https://doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.1.4439.8801.
- Thrane, K., 2014, Provenance study of Paleocene and Cretaceous clastic sedimentary rocks from the Davis Strait and the Labrador Sea, based on U–Pb dating of detrital zircons: Bulletin of Canadian Petroleum Geology, v. 62, p. 330–396, https://doi.org/10.2113/gscpgbull.62.4.330.
- Wernicke, B., 2011, The California River and its role in carving Grand Canyon: Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 123, p. 1288–1316, https://doi.org/10.1130/B30274.1.
- Whitmeyer, S.J., and Karlstrom, K.E., 2007, Tectonic model for the Proterozoic growth of North America: Geosphere, v. 3, p. 220–259, https://doi.org/10.1130/GES00055.1.
- Williams, V.E., 1986, Palynological study of the continental shelf sediments of the Labrador Sea: Unpublished PhD thesis, University of British Columbia, BC, 216 p.
- Young, R.A., 2008, Pre-Colorado River drainage in western Grand Canyon: Potential influence on Miocene stratigraphy in Grand Wash trough, in Reheis, M.C., Hershler, R., and Miller, D.M., eds., Late Cenozoic Drainage History of the Southwestern Great Basin and Lower Colorado River Region: Geologic and Biotic Perspectives: Geological Society of America Special Papers, v. 439, p. 319–333, https://doi.org/10.1130/2008.2439(14).
- Zaslow, M., 1975, “Reading the Rocks – The Story of the Geological Survey of Canada, 1842–1972”: Macmillan Company of Canada, 599 p.