Several decades of studies on shelf-margin evolution have led to recognition that both accommodation-dominated and supply-dominated sediment-delivery systems are capable of transporting sediments from the shelf down into deep-water basins. The former case relies on falling sea level and lowstands to move deltas to the shelf edge, whereas the latter depends on well-supplied deltas reaching the shelf edge regardless of sea-level rise. However, it remains unclear how to distinguish between the two sediment-dispersal alternatives, and which of these is more efficient in delivering sediments to deep water. We explore sediment-volume partitioning into deep-water areas by analyzing > 1600 runs of a geometric delta model with varying eustatic, shelf-morphologic, and sediment-supply conditions. Previous studies suggest that greenhouse eustatic (low amplitude and frequency) conditions generate lower shelf accommodation, and permit the shoreline to arrive at the shelf edge quickly. Further investigation reveals that (1) this argument works only for the supply-dominated system, and (2) the proportion of total sediment that reaches deep water is not correlated to the frequency of sea-level change, but depends strongly on the shelf width and the amplitude of sea-level change. We suggest a ratio between (1) the product of shelf width and the amplitude of sea-level change and (2) total sediment supply to quantitatively characterize the sediment dispersal system. A ratio of 0.4 forms a good boundary between accommodation- and supply-dominated systems in the modeling results, and in three well-studied ancient systems (the Maastrichtian Washakie Basin, Wyoming, USA; the Pliocene paleo-Orinoco margin, Trinidad and Tobago; and the Miocene New Jersey margin, northeastern USA). This work also suggests that the sediment mass balance becomes more important for continental margin building regardless of sea-level scenarios over the longer term.
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