The Pliocene and Quaternary unconsolidated sediments of the Upper Rhine Graben (URG) were petrographically analysed in numerous high quality drill cores. The heavy mineral composition of the Graben sediments was compared to those from the Graben margins. In addition, the sedimentary lithofacies were investigated. The chronological classification of the sedimentary successions was established by the interpretation of sporadic palaeontological and palaeomagnetic data.
Within the Pliocene sediments, two distinguishable heavy mineral assemblages indicate different source areas of the Graben fill. At first, a heavy mineral assemblage of stable minerals (turmaline, zircon and anatase) indicates a contribution of debris supplied from Buntsandstein areas at the Graben margins. Secondly, a mixed association of stable minerals in combination with unstable (garnet, hornblende, less epidote) and distinct rare minerals (e.g. monazite, xenotime) can be traced back to debris derived from the crystalline rocks of the southern Graben margins (Black Forest, Vosges). The distribution of sediments with this mixed heavy mineral assemblage proves the fluvial sediment transport from south to north and therefore the course of the Pliocene proto-Rhine along the Graben.
The correlation between the Quaternary sediment successions in the south and the north of the Graben is problematic due to their variable thicknesses as well as their changing lithofacies.
In the southern URG, the Quaternary strata could be subdivided into the older Breisgau Formation and the younger Neuenburg Formation based on characteristic lithofacies. Within this succession, the lower part of the Breisgau Formation (lower Breisgau beds) can be distinguished by noticeable lower contents of hornblende, which probably reflects the effects of weathering and solution of these unstable minerals due to repeated discontinuities during the sediment accumulation. The sediments of the upper part of the Breisgau Formation (upper Breisgau beds) and of the Neuenburg Formation contain a heavy mineral assemblage of garnet, epidote and hornblende, which is typical for Rhine deposits with Alpine contribution. This probably unaffected composition indicates a more unvaried and rapid accumulation of predominantly Alpine debris. In the northern URG, the Quaternary strata are subdivided into three aquifers and intercalated fine-grained horizons. Here, the Quaternary sediments can be petrographically classified into Rhine deposits (garnet, epidote and hornblende) and local accumulations contributed from the Graben margins (turmaline, zircon and anatase) without contemporaneous influence of the Rhine. The analytical results obtained from several drill cores in the northern URG provide evidence for the spatial and temporal variability of the course of the Rhine during the Quaternary.