- Copyright © 2017, SEPM (Society for Sedimentary Geology)
We often resort to mythical thinking in the face of natural phenomena that we hardly understand. Sedimentary petrology has several long-standing myths. One is that sediments increase their “maturity” through time by winnowing and sorting, physical wear, chemical weathering, diagenesis, and recycling, as if their destiny were to reach a final stage of perfection represented by quartz spheres of equal size. Such an armchair representation of supermature purity is embodied in white recycled desert sand, whereas a modern analogue for its opposite, the dark dirty rock improperly called graywacke, is yet to be found. Clay matrix does not occur in sand deposited from tractive currents, which is sorted at the instant of settling. Sand grains get rounded relatively rapidly during transport in air but very slowly when transported in water. The degree of winnowing, sorting, and rounding (“textural maturity”) has little to do with the accumulation of “modifying energy” through time. “Mineralogical maturity” does not increase notably even after thousands of kilometers of transport in high-energy environments, and not even during recycling, a physical process that in a weathering-limited denudation regime tends at most to reproduce the mineralogy of parent clastic rocks. Rather, “mineralogical maturity” decreases drastically where sedimentary rock fragments are eroded in abundance from mudrocks interbedded in the source, and sand recycled entirely from orogenic flysch or molasse may contain less than 10% quartz. If natural sediment factories were quartz distilleries, then quartzose sand should become more common through geological time. Pure quartz sand, however, is relatively rare in the modern world, and largely confined to hyperhumid equatorial latitudes or recycled eolian dunefields. A relative increase in more durable minerals is achieved effectively only by chemical processes such as selective leaching in soils, or especially during burial diagenesis, when the time and temperature available for chemical reactions are much longer and higher than at the Earth's surface. If recycled sediments are commonly quartz-rich with very poor assemblages dominated by zircon, tourmaline, and rutile, it is because their parent sandstones have undergone diagenetic dissolution prolonged for many millions of years at temperatures of many tens of degrees before final exhumation and erosion.