Monday, March 11, 2013


The idea behind chronostratigraphy is to correlate rocks that formed at the same time. This is useful for reconstructing events and depositional environments in earth history as well as finding resources like oil. There are several techniques that can be used for chronostratigraphy, including: event stratigraphy, magnetostratigraphy, chemostratigraphy, biostratigraphy, and sequence stratigraphy. Here, I will address event stratigraphy, magnetostratigraphy, and biostratigraphy. Sequence stratigraphy is very powerful, and lots of resources on it can be found at:

Event Stratigraphy
Event stratigraphy involves identifying the sedimentary effects of an unusual event in multiple stratigraphic columns. If one can demonstrate the the effects were all produced by the same even, one can reasonably interpret the effects to have happened at the same time in the different columns. For example, if a volcano erupts and deposits ash over a broad region, that ash is preserved in the stratigraphy, and a geologist can demonstrate that the ash in multiple sections came from the same eruption, then the geologist can create a chronostratigraphic correlation among the sections. Other events that are useful for event stratigraphy can include impact debris layers (for example at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary), tsunami deposits, and sometimes large storms.

There are some shortcomings of event stratigraphy. First, there has to be an event that affects the stratigraphy. For it to be useful, it needs to be something that affects multiple depositional environments in a way that produces a distinctive set of features that can be distinguished from the normal depositional processes. Second, for a specific event to be useful for correlations, it has to have affected the stratigraphy at the sites of interest. For example, a tsunami that affected the west coast of North America might help one correlate Pleistocene coastal deposits in Oregon and Washington. However, it would not be helpful for correlating Pleistocene rocks in Florida because it did not influence them. Third, if there are multiple events, the geologist has to sort out which correlate with each other. For example, if there are multiple volcanic eruptions at different times, the geologist needs to evaluate which eruptions the ash beds might represent. It can become complicated to correlate many events. Sometimes correlations are more reliable if there are fewer events, but then there are not as many potential temporal ties between the stratigraphic columns. Even with these complications, event stratigraphy is a very valuable tool. When the events are volcanic, the ash beds can often be dated, providing a precise age for a segment of the stratigraphic column.

Magnetostratigraphy uses preserved magnetization of rocks for correlation. The magnetization comes from the alignment of magnetic minerals in sedimentary rocks (and other types of rocks) with the earth’s magnetic field. Small magnetic minerals, especially clay-sized minerals, align like little magnets, and when the sediment is lithified, that magnetization can be preserved. Under the right conditions, samples can be collected and the direction of magnetization measured. Data can be used to reconstruct the direction of the earth’s magnetic field. This magnetic field can reverse directions due to the dynamics of circulation in the core. In other words, sometimes the magnetic field is aligned such that magnets point north (as they do now, and called “normal” in the scientific literature) and sometimes it is aligned such that magnets point south (called “reversed”). The earth’s magnetic field changes at close to the same time globally, so the effects are seen everywhere. Paleomagnetists have studied well dated sedimentary and volcanic rocks and have mapped out the times in earth history where the magnetic field was normal and reversed (see: This provides a reference that can help correlate other stratigraphic sections.

To correlate a suite of stratigraphic sections using magnetostratigraphy, one would collect samples, measure their magnetic properties using a variety of techniques, and evaluate whether or not they have been remagnetized. If they have not been remagnetized, changes in the direction of earth’s magnetic field can often be interpreted from the results. If a geologist has multiple sections that were deposited at the same time, they can interpret the changes in the direction of earth’s magnetic field to have happened at the same time. Unfortunately, however, one can not necessarily independently tell the many normal intervals apart from each other nor the many reversed intervals apart. Thus, the geologist needs additional information to make reliable chronostratigraphic correlations.

Biostratigraphy is an extremely powerful tool for chronostratigraphic correlation. Life evolves through time, with new species emerging and other species going extinct. For time intervals and species that are well studied, the process of evolution provides a detailed temporal framework for correlating stratigraphic columns. The basic idea is for the geologist to identify fossils in the stratigraphic columns, compare them to the ranges of those organisms know from previous studies, and then interpret the age of the rocks from documented extinction and species origination events. This is an extremely powerful approach to correlating stratigraphic columns because each species is unique and changes through time. However, not all organisms are useful for biostratigraphy.

Good biostratigraphic species: 1) have short geological ranges, e.g. they did not live for millions of years, and evolved quickly; 2) were distributed over a large region of the earth; 3) were easily preserved; and 4) were abundant. They also need to be well studied.

Zones of well documented species with distinct origination and extinction times can be defined a number of ways. A zone could consist of the total time of existence of a fossil, it could consist of the time where two or more fossils coexist, it could be defined as the time between the origination of one fossil and the extinction of a different fossil, etc. An example of a biostratigraphic zone chart, combined with magnetostratigraphic reversals can be found at:

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Interpreting Stratigraphic Columns

Step 1: Look for sedimentary structures that are characteristic of a specific environment or process

  • hummocky cross stratification - waves plus currents (storms)
  • wave ripples (vs current ripples) - waves (standing water)
  • herringbone cross stratification - bidirectional flow over hours or longer (tides)
  • reactivation surfaces - reshaping of bedforms due to changes in flow (tides)
  • mud drapes in sandstone - flow stops (tides)
  • bouma sequence - rapid flow slowing down (turbidity current)
  • mud cracks - mud contracts (exposed to air)
  • root casts - from plants, usually land plants (land)
  • faint ripple cross lamination with reverse grading - (eolian ripples)
  • meter-high dunes in fine sand - (eolian dunes)
  • diamictites - laminar flow - (debris flows, mud flows, melting ice)

  • with facetted clasts and striations - (glacial)

  • lone (or drop) stones in laminated shale - large grains rafted over quiet environment (icebergs; trees possible)

  • Step 2: Evaluate how these distinctive structures relate to each other in the stratigraphic column to develop a tentative environmental interpretation

  • Are there several indicators of waves or storms?
  • Are there several indicators of tides?
  • Are there several indicators of wind-deposited sediment?
  • Are there several indicators of glacial activity?

  • Step 3: Compare the tentative interpretation to flow implied by other sedimentary structures in the column and evaluate whether they are consistent with your tentative environmental interpretation.
    Examples of other sedimentary structures:

  • Trough cross stratification
  • Planar cross stratification
  • Current ripple cross lamination
  • Planar lamination

    Step 4: Evaluate how the vertical sequence of sedimentary structures changes to refine or correct your environmental interpretations.
    Do structures occur in a distinctive pattern that suggests a depositional environment?

  • Is there an erosion surface followed by dune stratification followed by ripple lamination followed by a rooted horizon? (Then it might be migrating river channels or tidal channels if there are indicators of tidal currents.)
  • Do the structures suggest an environment that shallows upward into a river system? (Then it might be a delta building out into standing water.)

  • Step 5: Use Walther's Law to refine your environmental interpretations and to test whether or not they are reasonable.
    Try to sketch neighboring environments and interpret how they shifted through time. Are your interpreted vertical changes in environments consistent with neighboring environments horizontally? Does your interpretation require any jumps in environments or imply an unconformity? Revise your interpretation until it is consistent with your data.

    Often, there is some ambiguity about the depositional environment(s) represented in real rocks. By going through this process, you can reach a reasonable interpretation that is well supported by the data. You will also understand where the ambiguities are. This is particularly helpful if it is your own data and you can make more observations by doing more field work.

    Monday, March 4, 2013

    Carbonates - A very brief introduction

    Carbonate rocks form from ions in seawater. Thus, their deposition and accumulation is somewhat different than it is for siliciclastic sediments. They do not require that sediment is transported into the environment. Rather, they require specific chemical, temperature, and biological conditions in the environment where they form.

    Most carbonates (during Phanerozoic time) are created by living organisms as shells and skeletons. (During Precambrian time, microbial communities strongly influenced carbonate mineral precipitation.) Corals, snails, clams, etc. are good examples. The reaction to form the carbonate minerals calcite or aragonite (which have the same mineral formula) is:

    Ca2+ + CO32- = CaCO3

    Because HCO3- is more abundant in seawater than CO32-, the actual reaction that takes place is:

    Ca2+ + 2HCO3- = CaCO3 + H2O + CO2

    The = means the reaction can go either way. If it goes from left to right, calcium carbonate minerals - calcite or aragonite - form. If it goes to the left, calcium carbonate minerals dissolve.) The chemical reaction to form the minerals is most likely in warm water, particularly in warm agitated waters. Breaking waves help get rid of the CO2 produced by the reaction, which makes the reaction proceed even faster. Also, some corals contain photosynthetic organisms within their tissues, and those organisms consume CO2, which also helps with the mineralization process. Thus, carbonate minerals form in warm, shallow seawater. The accumulation of carbonates creates “carbonate platforms” around many tropical islands (e.g. Caribbean islands, Bahamas, Hawaii, etc.) and along tropical shorelines (Florida, Great Barrier Reef of Australia, etc.).

    One major source of carbonate sediments is from calcifying algae. These organisms are very abundant. They produce the minerals as sand or mud grains (depending on the species) within their tissues. When the algae die, the carbonate grains are released into the environment to be transported by waves and currents. At this point, the grains behave more or less the same as siliciclastic grains, with coarser sediment requiring high flow speeds to be transported, and mud-sized grains requiring very low flow speeds to settle from suspension. In shallow environments, muds accumulate in deeper areas of lagoons or get transported off shore into deeper waters. The grains get concentrated into shoals where water speeds slow down, for example, where water is channeled through a reef into a lagoon. These grains can also grow through carbonate mineral precipitation forming coated grains, or ooids. Thus, they get coarser with time.

    A second distinctive feature of carbonates is the growth of reefs. Corals and other skeletal organisms grow well in high energy zones with breaking waves. Their skeletons make them resistant to erosion, and the breaking waves enhance carbonate mineral formation. Also, the precipitation of more carbonate as cements makes the structures hard and very resistant to erosion even though they are in high energy zones with breaking waves. These reef ecosystems can grow very quickly, creating a topographic high located off shore. This high induces more breaking waves, changing the energy distribution across the carbonate platform. The distribution of grain sizes around a reef depend on the flow speeds, similar to the dependence for siliciclastic grains, but the reef itself is cemented in place and provides a unique environment. Grains that are broken off tend to be transported to the inside or outside of the reef where water depths increase and flow speeds slow.

    As reefs grow upward, they create very steep slopes, sometimes almost vertical slopes. These slopes can be unstable long-term, and they can fail, creating breccia in deep water and inducing turbidites as in siliciclastic sediments.

    See figure 15.12 in Nichols, Edition 2 for the distribution of environments across a reef.