Sedimentology and Stratigraphy
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Sedimentology and Stratigraphy

Gary Nichols

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eBook - ePub

Sedimentology and Stratigraphy

Gary Nichols

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About This Book

This fully revised and updated edition introduces the reader to sedimentology and stratigraphic principles, and provides tools for the interpretation of sediments and sedimentary rocks. The processes of formation, transport and deposition of sediment are considered and then applied to develop conceptual models for the full range of sedimentary environments, from deserts to deep seas and reefs to rivers.

Different approaches to using stratigraphic principles to date and correlate strata are also considered, in order to provide a comprehensive introduction to all aspects of sedimentology and stratigraphy. The text and figures are designed to be accessible to anyone completely new to the subject, and all of the illustrative material is provided in an accompanying CD-ROM. High-resolution versions of these images can also be downloaded from the companion website for this book at:

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Introduction: Sedimentology and Stratigraphy

Sedimentology is the study of the processes of formation, transport and deposition of material that accumulates as sediment in continental and marine environments and eventually forms sedimentary rocks. Stratigraphy is the study of rocks to determine the order and timing of events in Earth history: it provides the time frame that allows us to interpret sedimentary rocks in terms of dynamic evolving environments. The stratigraphic record of sedimentary rocks is the fundamental database for understanding the evolution of life, plate tectonics through time and global climate change.


The concept of interpreting rocks in terms of modern processes dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries (‘the present is the key to the past’). ‘Sedimentology’ has existed as a distinct branch of the geological sciences for only a few decades. It developed as the observational elements of physical stratigraphy became more quantitative and the layers of strata were considered in terms of the physical, chemical and biological processes that formed them.
The nature of sedimentary material is very varied in origin, size, shape and composition. Particles such as grains and pebbles may be derived from the erosion of older rocks or directly ejected from volcanoes. Organisms form a very important source of material, ranging from microbial filaments encrusted with calcium carbonate to whole or broken shells, coral reefs, bones and plant debris. Direct precipitation of minerals from solution in water also contributes to sediments in some situations.
Formation of a body of sediment involves either the transport of particles to the site of deposition by gravity, water, air, ice or mass flows or the chemical or biological growth of the material in place. Accumulation of sediments in place is largely influenced by the chemistry, temperature and biological character of the setting. The processes of transport and deposition can be determined by looking at individual layers of sediment. The size, shape and distribution of particles all provide clues to the way in which the material was carried and deposited. Sedimentary structures such as ripples can be seen in sedimentary rocks and can be compared to ripples forming today, either in natural environments or in a laboratory tank.
Assuming that the laws that govern physical and chemical processes have not changed through time, detailed measurements of sedimentary rocks can be used to make estimates (to varying degrees of accuracy) of the physical, chemical and biological conditions that existed at the time of sedimentation. These conditions may include the salinity, depth and flow velocity in lake or seawater, the strength and direction of the wind in a desert and the tidal range in a shallow marine setting.


The environment at any point on the land or under the sea can be characterised by the physical and chemical processes that are active there and the organisms that live under those conditions at that time. As an example, a fluvial (river) environment includes a channel confining the flow of fresh water that carries and deposits gravelly or sandy material on bars in the channel (Fig. 1.1). When the river floods, water spreads relatively fine sediment over the floodplain where it is deposited in thin layers. Soils form and vegetation grows on the floodplain area. In a succession of sedimentary rocks (Fig. 1.2) the channel may be represented by a lens of sandstone or conglomerate that shows internal structures formed by deposition on the channel bars. The floodplain setting will be represented by thinly bedded mudrock and sandstone with roots and other evidence of soil formation.
In the description of sedimentary rocks in terms of depositional environments, the term ‘facies’ is often used. A rock facies is a body of rock with specified characteristics that reflect the conditions under which it was formed (Reading & Levell 1996). Describing the facies of a body of sediment involves documenting all the characteristics of its lithology, texture, sedimentary structures and fossil content that can aid in determining the processes of formation. By recognising associations of facies it is possible to establish the combinations of processes that were dominant; the characteristics of a depositional environment are determined by the processes that are present, and hence there is a link between facies associations and environments of deposition. The lens of sandstone in Fig. 1.2 may be shown to be a river channel if the floodplain deposits are found associated with it. However, recognition of a channel form on its own is not a sufficient basis to determine the depositional environment because channels filled with sand exist in other settings, including deltas, tidal environments and the deep sea floor: it is the association of different processes that provides the full picture of a depositional environment.
Fig. 1.1 A modern depositional environment: a sandy river channel and vegetated floodplain.
Fig. 1.2 Sedimentary rocks interpreted as the deposits of a river channel (the lens of sandstones in the centre right of the view) scoured into mudstone deposited on a floodplain (the darker, thinly bedded strata below and to the side of the sandstone lens).


Every depositional environment has a unique combination of processes, and the products of these processes, the sedimentary rocks, will be a similarly unique assemblage. For convenience of description and interpretation, depositional environments are classified as, for example, a delta, an estuary or a shoreline, and subcategories of each are established, such as wave-dominated, tide-dominated and river-dominated deltas. This approach is in general use by sedimentary geologists and is followed in this book. It is, however, important to recognise that these environments of deposition are convenient categories or ‘pigeonholes’, and that the description of them tends to be of ‘typical’ examples. The reality is that every delta, for example, is different from its neighbour in space or time, that every deltaic deposit will also be unique, and although we categorise deltas into a number of types, our deposit is likely to fall somewhere in between these ‘pigeonholes’. Sometimes it may not even be possible to conclusively distinguish between the deposits of a delta and an estuary, especially if the data set is incomplete, which it inevitably is when dealing with events of the past. However, by objectively considering each bed in terms of physical, chemical and biological processes, it is always possible to provide some indication of where and how a sedimentary rock was formed.


Use of the term ‘stratigraphy’ dates back to d’Orbingy in 1852, but the concept of layers of rocks, or strata, representing a sequence of events in the past is much older. In 1667 Steno developed the principle of superposition: ‘in a sequence of layered rocks, any layer is older than the layer next above it’. Stratigraphy can be considered as the relationship between rocks and time and the stratigrapher is concerned with the observation, description and interpretation of direct and tangible evidence in rocks to determine the history of the Earth. We all recognise that our planet is a dynamic place, where plate tectonics creates mountains and oceans and where changes in the atmosphere affect the climate, perhaps even on a human time scale. To understand how these global systems work, we need a record of their past behaviour to analyse, and this is provided by the study of stratigraphy.
Stratigraphy provides the temporal framework for geological sciences. The relative ages of rocks, and hence the events that are recorded in those rocks, can be determined by simple stratigraphic relationships (younger rocks generally lie on top of older, as Steno recognised), the fossils that are preserved in strata and by measurements of processes such as the radioactive decay of elements that allow us to date some rock units. At one level, stratigraphy is about establishing a nomenclature for rock units of all ages and correlating them all over the world, but at another level it is about finding the evidence for climate change in the past or the movements of tectonic plates. One of the powerful tools we have for predicting future climate change is the record in the rock strata of local and global changes over periods of thousands to millions of years. Furthermore our understanding of evolutionary processes is in part derived from the study of fossils found in rocks of different ages that tell us about how forms of life have changed through time. Other aspects of stratigraphy provide the tools for finding new resources: for example, ‘sequence stratigraphy’ is a predictive technique, widely used in the hydrocarbon industry, that can be used to help to find new reserves of oil and gas.
The combination of sedimentology and stratigraphy allows us to build up pictures of the Earth’s surface at different times in different places and relate them to each other. The character of the sedimentary rocks deposited might, for example, indicate that at one time a certain area was an arid landscape, with desert dunes and with washes of gravel coming from a nearby mountain range. In that same place, but at a later time, conditions allowed the formation of coral reefs in a shallow sea far away from any landmass, and we can find the record of this change by interpreting the rocks in terms of their processes and environments of deposition. Furthermore, we might establish that at the same time as there were shallow tropical seas in one place, there lay a deep ocean a few tens of kilometres away where fine sediment was deposited by ocean currents. We can thus build up pictures of the palaeogeography, the appearance of an area during some time in the past, and establish changes in palaeogeography through Earth history. To complete the picture, the distribution of different environments and their changes through time can be related to plate tectonics, because mountain building provides the source for much of the sediment, and plate movements also create the sedimentary basins where sediment accumulates.


Sedimentology and stratigraphy can be considered together as a continuum of processes and products, both in space and time. Sedimentology is concerned primarily with the formation of sedimentary rocks but as soon as these beds of rock are looked at in terms of their temporal and spatial relationships the study has become stratigraphic. Similarly if the stratigrapher wishes to interpret layers of rock in ter...

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