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Correlation (Geology)

Physical Correlation

Using sedimentary rock strata it should be possible, at least in theory, to write the geological history of the continents for the last billion or so years. Some important practical problems, however, prevent the full realization of this goal. For example, in many areas, erosion has removed much or most of the sedimentary rock that once existed there. In other places, strata are not clearly exposed to view but, instead, are buried hundreds or thousands of feet beneath the thin layer of soil that covers most of Earth's surface.

A few remarkable exceptions exist. A familiar example is the Grand Canyon, where the Colorado River has cut through dozens of strata, exposing them to view and making them available for study by geologists. Within the Grand Canyon, a geologist can follow a particular stratum for many miles, noting changes within the stratum and changes between that stratum and its neighbors above and below.

One of the characteristics observable in such a case is that a stratum often changes in thickness from one edge to another. At the edge where the thickness approaches zero, the stratum may merge into another stratum. This phenomenon is understandable when one considers the way the sediment in the rocks was laid down. At the mouth of a river, for example, the accumulation of sediments is likely to be greatest at the mouth itself, with decreasing thickness at greater distances into the lake or ocean. The principle of lateral continuity describes this phenomenon, namely that strata are three-dimensional features that extend outward in all directions, merging with adjacent deposits at their edges.

Human activity also exposes strata to view. When a highway is constructed through a mountainous (or hilly) area, for example, parts of a mountainside may be excavated, revealing various sedimentary rock strata. These strata can then be studied to discover the correlation among them and with strata in other areas.

Another problem is that strata are sometimes disrupted by earth movements. For example, an earthquake may lift one block of Earth's crust over an adjacent block or may shift it horizontally in comparison to the second block. The correlation between adjacent strata may then be difficult to determine.

Physical correlation is accomplished by using a number of criteria. For example, the color, grain size, and type of minerals contained within a stratum make it possible for geologists to classify a particular stratum quite specifically. This allows them to match up portions of that stratum in regions that are physically separated from each other. In the American West, for example, some strata have been found to cover large parts of two or more states although they are physically exposed in only a few specific regions.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Condensation to CoshCorrelation (Geology) - The Nature Of Sedimentary Strata, Physical Correlation, Interpreting Earth History Within A Stratum, Fossil Correlation