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Stratigraphic Fundamentals

The basic principle of sedimentation—that in any given set of layers of material the most recent levels are closest to the top—were established as long ago as the seventeenth century. By the nineteenth century early geologists like Charles Lyell recognized that this accumulation was not necessarily regular nor was it obvious. Interruptions and inversions (known collectively as discontinuities) in the stratigraphic record can change the actual position of layers of sedimentation, but their apparent position remains evident to trained geologists in relation to other layers and to their contents—especially fossil contents. Weathering can also influence the stratigraphic record by introducing trace elements into the various layers. Patterns in the very layering of sediments, such as ripple marks and flumes, can introduce discontinuities. Changes in climate, which bring about changes in sea level, also create discontinuities.

Equally as important as the contents of the layers themselves, however, are the borders between them. These separations mark discontinuities, breaks between one time and another. They can mark changes in accumulation of sediment as well as changes in time. Sediments do not deposit evenly—rates of sedimentation are influenced by extraordinary events as well as everyday processes. During periods of flood, for instance, rivers can drop tons of silt on what had been working farm land, and a single storm can carry away tons of beach sand into the ocean depths. The borders marked by the beginning and ends of such events can represent as little time as a single day. Because sediments generally accumulate over long periods of time, however, the borders between different layers usually represent a long-term change in local geography.

Geologists have created terminology to describe the different types of layers based on their thickness. Sediments are generally divided between laminae and beds, with the laminae represented by an accumulation of less than one centimeter, and the beds represented by accumulations ranging from 0.4-47 in (1-120 cm). The beds are subdivided into very thin, thin, thick, and very thick—respectively measuring 0.4-2 in (1-5 cm), 2-24 in (5-60 cm), 24-47 in (60-120 cm), and more than 47 in (120 cm) across. Beds are also graded on the size and type of the individual sand grains. Beds and laminae together form primary sedimentary structures, which indicate the way in which strata are laid down.

Geologists have also introduced various subgenres of stratigraphy classified by the types of layered material. Lithostratigraphers trace changes in layers of rock. This is the type of stratigraphy most commonly seen on geological survey maps. Biostratigraphy uses microscopic fossils to determine the relative ages of rocks and helps paleontologists trace local variations in climate. Tephrostratigraphy is the study of deposits of volcanic ash, while magnetostratigraphers trace fluctuations in the earth's magnetic field—specifically, reversals in its polarity—over millions of years. Other useful applications of stratigraphic analysis include seismic stratigraphy, which applies the principles of acoustics (sending shock waves through the earth) to determine the positions of pockets of petroleum and other substances.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Stomium to SwiftsStratigraphy - Stratigraphic Fundamentals, Applications Of Stratigraphy In Historical Studies