AskDefine | Define stratigraphy

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  1. The study of rock layers and the layering process (stratification)
  2. the layering of deposits, with newer remains overlaying older ones, forming a chronology of the site.

Extensive Definition

Stratigraphy, a branch of geology, studies rock layers and layering (stratification). It is primarily used in the study of sedimentary and layered volcanic rocks. Stratigraphy includes two related subfields: lithologic or lithostratigraphy and biologic stratigraphy or biostratigraphy.

Historical development

The theoretical basis for the subject was established by Nicholas Steno who introduced the law of superposition, the principle of original horizontality, and the principle of lateral continuity in a 1669 work on the fossilization of organic remains in layers of sediment.
The first practical large scale application of stratigraphy was by William Smith in the 1790s and early 1800s. Smith, known as the Father of English Geology, created the first geologic map of England, and first recognized the significance of strata or rock layering, and the importance of fossil markers for correlating strata. Another influential application of stratigraphy in the early 1800s was a study by Georges Cuvier and Alexandre Brongniart of the geology of the region around Paris.

Lithologic stratigraphy

Lithostratigraphy, or lithologic stratigraphy, is the most obvious. It deals with the physical lithologic or rock type change both vertically in layering or bedding of varying rock type and laterally reflecting changing environments of deposition, known as facies change. Key elements of stratigraphy involve understanding how certain geometric relationships between rock layers arise and what these geometries mean in terms of depositional environment. One of stratigraphy's basic concepts is codified in the Law of Superposition, which simply states that, in an undeformed stratigraphic sequence, the oldest strata occur at the base of the sequence. Chemostratigraphy is based on the changes in the relative proportions of trace elements and isotopes within and between lithologic units. Carbon and oxygen isotope ratios vary with time and are used to map subtle changes in the paleoenvironment This has led to the specialized field of isotopic stratigraphy.
Cyclostratigraphy documents the often cyclic changes in the relative proportions of minerals, particularly carbonates, and fossil diversity with time, related to changes in palaeoclimates.


Biostratigraphy or paleontologic stratigraphy is based on fossil evidence in the rock layers. Strata from widespread locations containing the same fossil fauna and flora are correlatable in time. Biologic stratigraphy was based on William Smith's principle of faunal succession, which predated, and was one of the first and most powerful lines of evidence for, biological evolution. It provides strong evidence for formation (speciation) of and the extinction of species. The geologic time scale was developed during the 1800s based on the evidence of biologic stratigraphy and faunal succession. This timescale remained a relative scale until the development of radiometric dating, which gave it and the stratigraphy it was based on an absolute time framework, leading to the development of chronostratigraphy.
One important development is the Vail curve, which attempts to define a global historical sea-level curve according to inferences from world-wide stratigraphic patterns. Stratigraphy is also commonly used to delineate the nature and extent of hydrocarbon-bearing reservoir rocks, seals and traps in petroleum geology.


Chronostratigraphy is the branch of stratigraphy that studies the absolute age of rock strata.
Chronostratigraphy is based upon deriving geochronological data for rock units, both directly and by inference, so that a sequence of time relative events of rocks within a region can be derived. In essence, chronostratigraphy seeks to understand the geologic history of rocks and regions.
The ultimate aim of chronostratigraphy is to arrange the sequence of deposition and the time of deposition of all rocks within a geological region, and eventually, the entire geologic record of the Earth.


When measurable magnetic properties of rocks vary stratigraphically they may be the bases for related but different kinds of stratigraphic units known collectively as "magnetostratigraphic units" ("magnetozones"). The magnetic property most useful in stratigraphic work is the change in the direction of the remanent magnetization of the rocks, caused by reversals in the polarity of the Earth's magnetic field. Such reversals of the polarity have taken place many times during geologic history. They are recorded in the rocks because the rocks may record the direction of the Earth's magnetic field at or near the time of rock formation (see paleomagnetism). The direction of the remnant magnetic polarity recorded in the stratigraphic sequence can be used as the basis for the subdivision of the sequence into units characterized by their magnetic polarity. Such units are called "magnetostratigraphic polarity units".
Magnetostratigraphy is a chronostratigraphic technique used to date sedimentary and volcanic stratigraphic sections. The method works by collecting oriented samples at measured intervals throughout the section. The samples are analyzed to determine their Detrital Remanent Magnetization (DRM), that is, the polarity of Earth's magnetic field at the time a stratum was deposited. This is possible because when very fine-grained magnetic minerals (< 17 micrometres) fall through the water column, they orient themselves with Earth's magnetic field. Upon burial, that orientation is preserved. The minerals, in effect, behave like tiny compasses.
If the ancient magnetic field was oriented similar to today's field (North Magnetic Pole near the North Rotational Pole) the strata retain a Normal Polarity. If the data indicate that the North Magnetic Pole was near the South Rotational Pole, the strata exhibit Reversed Polarity.

Sampling procedures

Oriented paleomagnetic core samples are collected in the field using a Pomeroy Drill. A minimum of three samples is taken from each sample site for statistical purposes. Spacing of the sample sites within a stratigraphic section depends on: 1) the type of depositional environment: The farther away from the orogenic front, the closer the sample spacing due to generally lower rates of deposition; and 2) the suitability of the rocks for paleomagnetic analysis. Mudstones, siltstones, and very fine-grained sandstones are the preferred lithologies because the magnetic grains are finer and more likely to orient with the ambient field during deposition. It is more likely that these samples will deliver a reliable paleomagnetic signal.

Analytical procedures

Samples are first analyzed in their natural state to obtain their Natural Remanent Magnetization (NRM). The NRM is then stripped away in a stepwise manner using thermal or alternating field demagnetization techniques to reveal the stable magnetic component. The stable component is usually interpreted to be the DRM.
DRM orientations of all samples from a site are then compared and their magnetic polarity is determined with Fisher statistics. Using Watson's criteria, the statistical significance of each sample site is evaluated. The latitudes of the Virtual Geomagnetic Poles from those sites determined to be statistically significant are plotted against the stratigraphic level at which they were collected. These data are then abstracted to the standard black and white magnetostratigraphic columns in which black indicates Normal polarity and white is Reversed polarity.

Correlation and ages

Because the polarity of a stratum can only be Normal or Reversed, variations in the rate at which the sediment accumulated can cause the thickness of a given polarity zone to vary from one area to another. This presents the problem of how to differentiate different zones of like polarities between different stratigraphic sections. To overcome the possibility of confusion at least one isotopic age (or at least an age based on paleontological data) needs to be collected from each section. These are usually obtained from intercalated airfall volcanic material. With the aid of the independent isotopic age or ages, the local magnetostratigraphic column is correlated with the Global Magnetic Polarity Time Scale (GMPTS).
Because the age of each reversal shown on the GMPTS is relatively well known, the correlation establishes numerous time lines through the stratigraphic section. These ages provide relatively precise dates for features in the rocks such as fossils, changes in sedimentary rock composition, changes in depositional environment, etc. They also constrain the ages of cross-cutting features such as faults, dikes, and unconformities.

Sediment accumulation rates

Perhaps the most powerful application of these data is to determine the rate at which the sediment accumulated. This is accomplished by plotting the age of each reversal (in millions of years ago) vs. the stratigraphic level at which the reversal is found (in meters). This provides the rate in meters per million years which is usually rewritten in terms of millimeters per year (which is the same as kilometers per million years).
These data are also used to model basin subsidence rates. Knowing the depth of a hydrocarbon source rock beneath the basin-filling strata allows calculation of the age at which the source rock passed through the generation window and hydrocarbon migration began. Because the ages of cross-cutting trapping structures can usually be determined from magnetostratigraphic data, a comparison of these ages will assist reservoir geologists in their determination of whether or not a play is likely in a given trap.
Another application of these results derives from the fact that they illustrate when sediment accumulation rates changed. Such changes require explanation. The answer is often related to either climatic factors or to tectonic developments in nearby or distant mountain ranges. Evidence to strengthen this interpretation can often be found by looking for subtle changes in the composition of the rocks in the section. Changes in sandstone composition are often used for this type of interpretation.

Archaeological stratigraphy

In the field of archaeology, soil stratigraphy is used to better understand the processes that form and protect archaeological sites. The law of superposition holds true, and this can help date finds or features from each context, as they can be placed in sequence and the dates interpolated. Phases of activity can also often be seen through stratigraphy, especially when a trench or feature is viewed in section (profile). As pits and other features can be dug down into earlier levels, not all material at the same absolute depth is necessarily of the same age, but close attention has to be paid to the archeological layers. The Harris-matrix is a tool to depict complex stratigraphic relations, as they are found, for example, in the contexts of urban archaeology.
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