- © The Mineralogical Society Of America
The composition of “heavy,” or accessory, detrital minerals in sediments and sedimentary rocks has been a topic of quantitative study for at least the last seventy years, beginning with the first issue of the Journal of Sedimentary Petrology in May 1931 (Tyler 1931, Pentland 1931). Zircon has since played a prominent and complex role in interpreting the composition and history of modern and ancient sediments. Because zircon is highly refractory at Earth’s surface, it occurs in virtually all sedimentary deposits and so provides a critical link in understanding the source history of a deposit. Twenhofel (1941), in a pioneering paper on the frontiers of sedimentary mineralogy and petrology, noted that the simple presence of detrital zircon would be of little value in determining its source: “Zircons from a half dozen sources with as many different properties may be present in a sediment and merely be identified as zircon. Parent rocks cannot be positively identified on such data. The variety or varieties must be identified and their optical properties determined.” From very early on, then, it was recognized that detrital zircon would be a powerful tool in understanding provenance, and thus, sedimentary dispersal systems.
Interpretive goals matured considerably in the subsequent decades, especially with major advances in microscopy, mineral chemistry, isotope tracer geochemistry, and geochronology, each addressing different aspects of provenance, sedimentation, and Earth history. The hundreds of published studies utilizing detrital zircon in the last 20 years indicate the increasing success in assessing provenance, paleogeography, and tectonic reconstructions. Selected studies are highlighted in this review to illustrate ways in which detrital zircon can be used for interpreting the stratigraphic record, and thus, the past surface conditions of Earth. In it we will outline the quantitative techniques involved in the sampling protocol and interpretation of data and then …