Evolution of the gulf of Cadiz margin and southwest Portugal contourite depositional system: Tectonic, sedimentary and paleoceanographic implications from IODP expedition 339

F.J. Hernández-Molina*, F.J. Sierro, E. Llave, C. Roque, D. A. V. Stow, T. Williams, J. Lofi, M. Van der Schee, A. Arnáiz, S. Ledesma, C. Rosales, F. J. Rodríguez-Tovar, E. Pardo-Igúzquiza, R. E. Brackenridge

*Corresponding author for this work

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The contourite depositional system (CDS) along the southwestern Iberian Margin (SIM), within the Gulf of Cadiz and offshore areas of western Portugal bear the unmistakable signal of Mediterranean Outflow Water (MOW) exiting the Strait of Gibraltar. This locality records key information concerning the effects of tectonic activity on margin sedimentation, the effects of MOW dynamics on Atlantic circulation, and how these factors may have influenced global climate. Over the last four decades, numerous studies have been conducted on the late Miocene, Pliocene and Quaternary sedimentary stacking pattern of Neogene basins along the SIM for both academic and resources exploration purposes. However, understanding of the region rests primarily on basic seismic stratigraphy calibrated with limited data from only a few exploration wells. The Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) Expedition 339 recently drilled five sites in the Gulf of Cadiz and two sites on the western Iberian margin. The integration of core and borehole data with other geophysical databases leads us to propose a new stratigraphic framework. Interpretation of IODP Exp. 339 data along with that from industry sources and onshore outcrop analysis helps refine our understanding of the SIM's sedimentary evolution. We identify significant changes in sedimentation style and dominant sedimentary processes, coupled with widespread depositional hiatuses along the SIM within the Cadiz, Sanlucar, Doñana, Algarve and Alentejo basins. Following the 4.5 Ma cessation of a previous phase of tectonic activity related to the Miocene–Pliocene boundary, tectonics continued to influence margin development, downslope sediment transport and CDS evolution. Sedimentary features indicate tectonic pulses of about 0.8–0.9 Ma duration with a pronounced overprint of ~ 2–2.5 Ma cycles. These more protracted cycles relate to the westward rollback of subducted lithosphere at the convergent Africa-Eurasia plate boundary as its previous NW–SE compressional regime shifted to a WNW–ESE direction. Two major compressional events affecting to the Neogene basins at 3.2–3 Ma and 2–2.3 Ma help constrain the three main stages of CDS evolution. The stages include: 1) the initial-drift stage (5.33–3.2 Ma) with a weak MOW, 2) a transitional-drift stage (3.2–2 Ma) and 3) a growth-drift stage (2 Ma-present time) with enhanced MOW circulation into the Atlantic and associated contourite development due to greater bottom-current velocity. Two minor Pleistocene discontinuities at 0.7–0.9 Ma and 0.3–0.6 Ma record the effects of renewed tectonic activity on basin evolution, appearing most prominently in the Doñana basin. Several discontinuities bounding major and minor units appear on seismic profiles. Quaternary records offer the clearest example of this, with major units of about 0.8–0.9 Ma and sub-units of 0.4–0.5 Ma. Sedimentation is controlled by a combination of tectonics, sediment supply, sea-level and climate. This research identifies time scales of tectonic controls on deep-marine sedimentation, specifically over periods of 2.5–> 0.4 Ma. Shorter-term climatic (orbital) mechanisms control sedimentation at time scales of ≤ 0.4 Ma. The role of bottom water circulation and associated processes in shaping the seafloor and controlling the sedimentary stacking pattern on continental margins has to be seriously reconsidered in future multidisciplinary studies. This is not only because of the common occurrence of sandy contourite deposits in deep water setting and their economic interest for hydrocarbon exploration, but principally because they archive the heartbeat of the interior Earth and therefore have important sedimentary and paleoceanographic implications.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7-39
Number of pages33
JournalMarine Geology
Early online date9 Oct 2015
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2016

Bibliographical note

This research used samples and data collected through the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP). The research was partially supported through the CTM 2008-06399-C04/MAR, CTM 2012-39599-C03, CGL2011-26493, CTM2012-38248, SA263U14, IGCP-619, INQUA 1204 and FWF P25831-N29 Projects. Some data were collected with 94-1090-C03-03 (FADO) and MAR-98-0209 (TASYO) Projects. Research was conducted in the framework of the Continental Margins Research Group of the Royal Holloway University of London, People and the Program (Marie Curie Actions) of the European Union's Seventh Framework Program FP7/2007-2013/ under REA Grant Agreement No. 290201 MEDGATE’. We are very grateful to REPSeOL, TGS–NOPEC, and the CSIC-Institut Jaume Almera (http://geodb.ictja.csic.es) for allowing us to use an unpublished seismic data from the Gulf of Cadiz. We thank J. Aguire (UGR, Spain) for comments and suggestions concerning the Pliocene and Quaternary outcrops, B. van den Berg (USAL) for organizing a thought-provoking field-trip to Cadiz, Spain in November, 2014, M. Ángel Caja, L. García Diego, and J. Tritlla (REPSOL) for provenance and diagenetic analysis of early Pliocene sandstones and debrites, and L.J. Lourens (Utrecht University) for providing us the eccentricity and 200-Kys glacio-eustatic sea-level curves included in the Figure 16. Both Prof. D.A.V. Stow (Heriot-Watt Univ., UK) and F.J. Hernández-Molina (RHUL, UK), as the main co-proponents of the IODP Proposal 644 and the co-chiefs of the IODP Exp. 339, thanks to IODP, Exp. IODP 339 Scientists; JR crew and technicians, as well as all people, institutions and companies involved in making IODP a success since 2003. Finally, we also thank the editor, Gert J. De Lange and the reviewers T. Mulder (Bourdeaux Univ.); D. Van Rooij (Ghent Univ) and J. Duarte (Monash Univ.) for their very positive and helpful feedback and discussions in publishing this research.


  • Neogene basins
  • IODP expedition 339
  • Contourites
  • Stratigraphy
  • Tectonic
  • Mediterranean outflow water


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