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Principles of

Sedimentology and
Stratigraphy (EaES 350)
Instructor: Torbjörn Törnqvist
SES 2450
(312) 996-3159

Teaching assistant: Zenon Mateo

SES 2474
(312) 996-2324
Components of EaES 350

• Lectures
• Labs
• Poster presentation
• Field trips (Indiana Dunes; SW Wisconsin)

• More detailed information on EaES 350


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• Written exams (50%)

• Midterm (20%)
• Final (30%)
• Labs (30%)
• Poster (20%)
• Content (15%)
• Visual appeal (5%)

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• Nichols, G., 1999. Sedimentology and

Stratigraphy. Blackwell, Oxford, 355 pp. ISBN

• Lecture notes on EaES 350 homepage


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• Sedimentology = the study of the processes of

formation, transport and deposition of material which
accumulates as sediment in continental and marine
environments and eventually forms sedimentary rocks

• Stratigraphy = the study of rocks to determine the

order and timing of events in Earth history

• Sedimentary geology ≈ sedimentology + stratigraphy

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Context of sedimentary geology within the

Earth sciences

• Rock cycle: mountain formation and/or uplift; weathering and

erosion; sediment transport, deposition, and
diagenesis; metamorphism and igneous rock formation;
renewed uplift… etc.
• Structural geology/Tectonics (Geophysics); Geomorphology;
Sedimentology/Stratigraphy (Sedimentary geology);
Metamorphic geology/Petrology
• Other closely related disciplines: Paleontology, Geochemistry,

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Historical development of sedimentary

geology and key concepts

• Principle of superposition (Nicolas Steno, 1669)

• Uniformitarianism (“the present is the key to the past”)
(Charles Lyell, 1830)

• Stratigraphy developed already around 1800

• Sedimentology is a relatively new discipline (1960s and
• Late 1980s and 1990s: revival of stratigraphy (sequence
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Temporal and spatial scales

• Sedimentology focuses primarily on facies and depositional

environments (how were sediments/sedimentary rocks
• Smaller temporal and spatial scales
• Stratigraphy focuses on the larger scale strata and Earth
history (when and where were sediments/sedimentary rocks
• Larger temporal and spatial scales

• The stratigraphic record is nearly always very incomplete due

to a limited preservation potential, that decreases with
increasing time scales

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Primary data sources for sedimentologic/

stratigraphic studies

• Outcrops (consolidated vs. unconsolidated sediments)

• Cores (hand-operated vs. power-driven)
• Geophysical data (e.g., wireline logs, seismic, ground-
penetrating radar)

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• Modern processes constitute the basis for interpreting

ancient products (uniformitarianism works in many
cases, but not always)

• Unconsolidated sediments (~Quaternary) vs.

sedimentary rocks (~pre-Quaternary)

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• General structure of the course: from small scale

(sediment grains) to large scale (sedimentary basins);
i.e., from sedimentology to stratigraphy

• Clastics and carbonates integrated

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• Introduction • Stratigraphic principles

• Unconsolidated clastic sediments • Sequence stratigraphy
• Sedimentary rocks • Sedimentary basins
• Diagenesis • Models in sedimentary
• Sediment transport and deposition geology
• Sedimentary structures • Applied sedimentary geology
• • Reflection
Facies and depositional environments
• Glacial/eolian/lacustrine
• Fluvial/deltaic/coastal environments
• Shallow/deep marine environments

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Unconsolidated clastic sediments

• Particles (or ‘clasts’) are the basic elements of any

• Clastic (terrigenous clastic or siliciclastic) sediments (80-
85% of the stratigraphic record) consist of particles derived
from pre-existing rocks, as opposed to non-clastic
• Texture
• Grain (particle) size
• Grain shape
• Clast/matrix relationships
• Fabric
• Lithology is the general characterization of a sediment or
a sedimentary rock (e.g., coarse sand, mudstone)

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Unconsolidated clastic sediments

• The Udden-Wentworth grain-size scale is based on

factors of two: Φ = −log2 Φ = -log2 (mm)
• Mud (<63 µ m; >4 Φ )
• Clay (<4 µ m; >8 Φ )
• Silt (4–63 µ m; 4–8 Φ )
• Sand (63–2000 µ m; -1–4 Φ )
• Gravel (>2000 µ m; <-1 Φ )

• Grain-size (particle-size, granulometric) analysis

• The old-fashioned way: direct measurement (gravel) and
sieve/pipette analysis (sand and mud)
• The modern technology: laser particle sizing (sand and

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Unconsolidated clastic sediments

Moment measures
• First moment: mean (cf. median, mode)
• Premier measure of the grain size
μ = ∑ xi /n

• Second moment: variance (cf. standard deviation)

• Measure of the degree of sorting
σ = ∑ (x − μ)2 /n
2 (σ = standard deviation)

• Third moment: skewness

• Measure of the symmetry of the grain-size distribution
sk = ∑ (xi − μ)3 /n
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Unconsolidated clastic sediments

• Grain shape
• Roundness (well rounded to very angular)
• Sphericity (high or low)

• Clast/matrix proportion
• The matrix is the relatively fine-grained material that lies
between the relatively coarse-grained clasts
• Clast-supported sediments (clasts are in direct contact)
• Matrix-supported sediments (clasts are entirely surrounded by

• Fabric
• Preferential orientation of particles in a sediment or tendency
of a rock to break in specific directions

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Unconsolidated clastic sediments

• Sediment composition
• Detrital mineral grains (quartz, feldspar, mica, heavy minerals)
• Lithic fragments (polymineral grains or rock fragments)
• Detrital mineral grains dominate in silts, lithic fragments dominate
in gravels

• Sediment maturity (degree of change compared to original

bedrock: provides evidence on the history of a sediment)
• Textural (mud content, sorting, grain shape)
• Mineralogical (proportion of stable or resistant minerals)
• Pitfalls! (depends strongly on the nature of the original bedrock)

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Unconsolidated clastic sediments

Clay minerals

• Clay minerals are phyllosilicates with layered crystal

• Kandite group (two layers): kaolinite
• Smectite group (three layers): montmorillonite, illite, chlorite
• Key physical and chemical characteristics of clay minerals
• Platy shape (easy to keep in suspension, very slow settling
• Strong cohesion due to electrostatic charge (relatively difficult
to erode, tendency to flocculate)

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Sedimentary rocks

• Clastic (siliciclastic) rocks (80-85% of the

stratigraphic record)
• Carbonate sediments and rocks (10-15% of the
stratigraphic record)
• Organic (carbonaceous) sediments and rocks
• Evaporites
• Volcaniclastic sediments and rocks

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Sedimentary rocks

Clastic (siliciclastic) rocks

• Sandstones (20-25% of the stratigraphic record) can

be subdivided according to the Pettijohn classification,
based on texture and composition (relative proportions
of quartz, feldspar, and lithic fragments)
• Quartz arenite: quartz-dominated
• Arkosic arenite: feldspar-dominated
• Lithic arenite: dominance of lithic fragments
• Wacke: significantly matrix-supported (>15% mud)
• Quartz wacke
• Greywacke (feldspathic or lithic wacke)

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Sedimentary rocks

Clastic (siliciclastic) rocks

• Mudstones (60% of the stratigraphic record) are also

known as mudrocks or shales and commonly exhibit a
distinct fissility
• Claystone
• Siltstone

• Conglomerates are consolidated gravels; breccias are

conglomerates with dominantly angular clasts
• Clast-supported conglomerates
• Matrix-supported conglomerates

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Sedimentary rocks

Carbonate sediments and rocks

• Principal minerals: calcite, aragonite (unstable), and

dolomite (diagenetic)
• Principal rocks: limestone (>50% CaCO3) and dolomite
(dolostone) (CaMg(CO3)2)
• Formation of carbonate sediments and rocks occurs by
means of two main processes:
• Biomineralization of CaCO3 by organisms
• Direct chemical precipitation

Ca2+ + 2HCO3 ⇔ CaCO3 + H2CO3

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Sedimentary rocks

Carbonate sediments and rocks

• Biogenic carbonate formation occurs by a wide range of

organisms (e.g., molluscs, corals, forams, algae,
bacteria, and many others)
• Most organisms initially form unconsolidated carbonate
• Coral reefs and microbial mats (e.g., stromatolites) are
examples of more solid carbonate structures
• Chemical precipitation produces non-skeletal carbonate
grains of various sizes (e.g., ooids, pisoids, micrite)

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Sedimentary rocks

Carbonate sediments and rocks

• Carbonate sand usually consists either of (fragmented)

skeletal remains or non-skeletal grains
• Carbonate mud (micrite) is commonly the product either
of chemical precipitation or algal/bacterial activity

• Dunham classification of carbonate rocks:

• Texturally-based subdivision (cf. clastics): mudstone,
wackestone, packstone, grainstone, rudstone
• Organically bound framework during formation: boundstone

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Sedimentary rocks

Organic (carbonaceous) sediments and


• Peat and organic-rich clastic sediments form in

relatively anaerobic (reducing) environments (e.g.,
mires, lakes, oceans)
• Minerotrophic peat: mostly nutrient-rich, groundwater-
fed mires (e.g., floodplains, delta plains, coastal plains)
• Ombrotrophic peat: mostly nutrient-poor, rainwater-fed
mires (e.g., relatively high, flat terrains)
• Gyttja: organic-rich lake sediment
• Sapropel: organic-rich marine sediment

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Sedimentary rocks

Organic (carbonaceous) sediments and


• Coal consists primarily of solid organic matter; the

remainder is known as ‘ash’
• Carbonaceous shales have a lower proportion of solid
organic matter
• Oil shales (may be formed in anaerobic lake and
marine environments) contain organic matter that can
be driven off as liquid or gas by heating

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Sedimentary rocks


• Dissolved salts precipitate out of sea water due to

concentration (brine formation) during evaporation (1
km of sea water --> 12 m of evaporites)
• Evaporites commonly lithify into consolidated rocks
upon formation
• Least soluble compounds precipitate first:
• CaCO3 (calcium carbonate)
• CaSO4 (calcium sulphate: gypsum or anhydrite)
• NaCl (halite: rock salt)
• Other, less stable (highly soluble) chlorides

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Sedimentary rocks

Volcaniclastic sediments and rocks

• Lava (cooled magma flows) produces volcaniclastic

sediment upon weathering
• Pyroclastic material or tephra (ejected particulate
material) can be subdivided into different compositional
• Mineral grains
• Lithic fragments
• Vitric material (volcanic glass or pumice)

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• Diagenesis (≈ lithification) includes the full range of

alterations sediments undergo after deposition, at
relatively low temperatures and pressures (gradational
to metamorphism)
• Lithification may occur simultaneously with deposition
(in several carbonates, evaporites, and volcaniclastics)

• Physical and chemical diagenetic processes constitute

compaction and cementation, respectively
• Diagenesis commonly leads to a reduction of porosity
and permeability

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• Compaction is the result of overburden pressure during

sediment burial, resulting in a decrease of volume and
an increase of density
• Compaction is extremely important in organics and muds,
but less important in sands, gravels, and reefal carbonates
• Compaction is accompanied by the expulsion of
groundwater and a reduction of porosity
• Differential compaction is important when sediments
exhibit a high spatial variability

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• Pressure dissolution results in increasingly

interlocking grains, and significantly contributes to
• In limestones, pressure dissolution usually occurs at
specific horizons, that may or may not correspond to
depositional bedding planes
• Stylolites are irregular pressure dissolution surfaces
with higher proportions of residual material and
represent more extreme forms of this process

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• Dissolution commonly occurs without high pressures,

and subsequent precipitation results in the formation of
cement (authigenic minerals)
• Calcium carbonate (sparry or micritic)
• Silica (commonly microquartz)
• Clay minerals
• Cementation reduces both the porosity and the

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• Nodules (irregular) and concretions (rounded) are

larger cemented bodies (e.g., silica, calcite, siderite,
• Chert (flint) is the most widely known type of silica
nodules, especially common in limestones

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• Dolomites are mostly formed diagenetically, involving

the replacement of calcite or aragonite by dolomite
• Four main models of dolomitization can be
• Evaporite brine residue/seepage reflux model
• Meteoric-marine/groundwater mixing model (obsolete)
• Burial compaction/formation water model
• Sea water/convection model

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Coal formation

• Coal formation is primarily the result of compaction and

geothermal heating
• A very high proportion of compaction occurs during the
peat-accumulation stage
• Peat --> lignite --> bituminous coal --> anthracite
• Relative increase of carbon over hydrogen and oxygen
(gradual expulsion of H2O, CO2, and CH4)
• Methane (CH4) is an important byproduct of coal formation

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Hydrocarbon formation

• Diagenetic breakdown of planktonic algae (maturation)

leads to the formation of kerogen (long-chain
• Liquid hydrocarbons (shorter-chain hydrocarbons) are
generally formed at temperatures of 70-100° C (‘oil
window’ at 2-3 km depth)
• Methane is released at temperatures over 150° C

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Sediment transport and deposition

Transport media

• Water
• Overland flow, channel flow
• Waves, tides, ocean currents
• Air
• Ice
• Gravity
• Rock falls (no transport medium involved)
• Debris flows, turbidity currents (water involved)

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Sediment transport and deposition

Reynolds number (laminar vs. turbulent flow)


u=flow velocity; l=characteristic length (flow depth); υ =kinematic

viscosity (dynamic viscosity/fluid density)

• Turbulence is promoted by high flow velocities and flow

depths, and low viscosities (Re>2000); laminar flow
occurs when the reverse is the case (Re<500)
• Air and water are nearly always turbulent

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Sediment transport and deposition

Froude number (subcritical vs. supercritical flow)

Fr =

u=flow velocity; d=flow depth; √gd=celerity (wave velocity)

• Flow velocities exceeding wave propagation velocities

(Fr>1) yield supercritical flow, lower velocities (Fr<1)
cause subcritical flow
• A spatial transition from subcritical to supercritical flow
(or vice versa) is characterized by a ‘hydraulic jump’

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Sediment transport and deposition

Stokes’ Law (settling velocity in a static fluid)

gD2 (ρg − ρf )
vg =

vg=settling velocity; D=grain diameter; ρ g=grain density;

ρ f=fluid density; µ =dynamic viscosity

• Stokes’ Law only applies to fine (<100 µ m), quartz-

density grains in water

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Sediment transport and deposition

• The Bernouilli effect is the reduction of pressure,

proportional to the increase of flow velocity as the flow
encounters an obstacle (sediment particle), leading to a
lift force and entrainment of the particle
• Drag forces and lift forces act together to cause
entrainment of sediment grains

• The boundary layer is that part of the flow influenced

by frictional effects

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Sediment transport and deposition

• A widely used parameter in the context of sediment

transport is the shear stress, expressed in N m-2, which
can be determined anywhere in a flow or at the bed
τ0 = ρgdS= μ

ρ =fluid density; d=flow depth; S=slope; µ =dynamic viscosity;

u=flow velocity

• Bed shear stress (τ 0) must be higher than the critical

shear stress (τ c) to enable sediment grains to be
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Sediment transport and deposition

Transport modes in a turbulent fluid

• Traction (rolling over the bed surface)

• Saltation (jumping over the bed surface)
• Suspension (permanent transport within the fluid)
• Solution (chemical transport)

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Sediment transport and deposition

• Critical velocities are different for sediment entrainment

and deposition, especially in the finer fractions
• Fluid density and viscosity play a key role in
determining which particle sizes can be transported
• The amount of sediment transport is not only related to
flow velocity (or bed shear stress) and grain size, but
also to:
• Grain density
• Grain shape

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Sediment transport and deposition

Current ripples

• Once movement of sand grains (<0.7 mm) occurs,

current ripples are formed as a result of boundary layer
separation, commonly accompanied by a separation
• Current ripples have a stoss side (erosion and transport)
and lee side (deposition), the latter with a slope of ~30°
(angle of repose)
• Current ripples only form under moderate flow velocities,
with a grain size <0.7 mm
• Height: 0.5–3 cm; wavelength: 5–40 cm

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Sediment transport and deposition


• Dunes are distinctly larger than current ripples

• There is a relationship between boundary-layer thickness (≈
flow depth in rivers) and the dimension of dunes
• Dunes only form in grain sizes >0.2 mm
• Low flow velocities (bed shear stresses) yield straight-crested
bedforms (valid for both dunes and current ripples); higher
shear stresses result in sinuous to linguoid crest lines
• Sand waves constitute the largest category of subaqueous

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Sediment transport and deposition

Plane beds and antidunes

• In coarse sands (>0.7 mm) lower-stage plane beds

develop instead of current ripples
• At high (but still subcritical) flow velocities upper-stage
plane beds are formed in all sand grain sizes
• Supercritical flow conditions (Fr≈ 1 or higher) enable the
formation of antidunes, characterized by bedform
accretion in an upstream direction

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Sediment transport and deposition


• Waves are wind-generated oscillatory motions of water

• Wave height is dependent on wind strength and fetch
• The depth to which the oscillatory motion due to wave
action extends is known as the wave base; shallow
water leads to breaking waves
• Wave ripples are distinct from current ripples due to
their symmetry, and include low-energy ‘rolling grain
ripples’ and high-energy ‘vortex ripples’

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Sediment transport and deposition


• Tides are formed by the gravitational attraction of the

Moon and Sun on the Earth, combined with the
centrifugal force caused by movement of the Earth
around the center of mass of the Earth-Moon system
• Semi-diurnal or diurnal tidal cycles
• Neap-spring tidal cycles
• Annual tidal cycles

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Sediment transport and deposition

Ocean currents

• The circulation of sea water in the world’s oceans is

driven by wind and contrasts in density due to variable
temperature and salinity (thermohaline circulation),
combined with the Coriolis effect
• Ocean currents transport clay and silt in suspension,
and sand as bed load, and their effects are especially
important in deep waters, where storms and tides are
less important

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Sediment transport and deposition

Gravity flows

• Debris flows have a high (>50%) proportion of

sediment to water and can be both subaerial and
• Low Reynolds numbers
• Turbidity currents have a higher proportion of water,
are always subaqueous, and move due to density
• Higher Reynolds numbers

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Sedimentary structures

• Sedimentary structures occur at very different scales,

from less than a mm (thin section) to 100s–1000s of
meters (large outcrops); most attention is traditionally
focused on the bedform-scale
• Microforms (e.g., ripples)
• Mesoforms (e.g., dunes)
• Macroforms (e.g., bars)

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Sedimentary structures

• Laminae and beds are the basic sedimentary units

that produce stratification; the transition between the
two is arbitrarily set at 10 mm
• Normal grading is an upward decreasing grain size
within a single lamina or bed (associated with a
decrease in flow velocity), as opposed to reverse
• Fining-upward successions and coarsening-
upward successions are the products of vertically
stacked individual beds

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Sedimentary structures

Cross stratification

• Cross lamination (small-scale cross stratification) is

produced by ripples
• Cross bedding (large-scale cross stratification) is
produced by dunes
• Cross-stratified deposits can only be preserved when a
bedform is not entirely eroded by the subsequent
bedform (i.e., sediment input > sediment output)
• Straight-crested bedforms lead to planar cross
stratification; sinuous or linguoid bedforms produce
trough cross stratification

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Sedimentary structures

Cross stratification

• The angle of climb of cross-stratified deposits increases

with deposition rate, resulting in ‘climbing ripple
cross lamination’
• Antidunes form cross strata that dip upstream, but
these are not commonly preserved

• A single unit of cross-stratified material is known as a

set; a succession of sets forms a co-set

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Sedimentary structures

Planar stratification

• Planar lamination (or planar bedding) is formed under

both lower-stage and upper-stage flow conditions
• Planar stratification can easily be confused with planar
cross stratification, depending on the orientation of a
section (strike sections!)

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Sedimentary structures

• Cross stratification produced by wave ripples can be

distinguished from current ripples by their symmetry and
by laminae dipping in two directions
• Hummocky cross stratification (HCS) forms during
storm events with combined wave and current activity in
shallow seas (below the fair-weather wave base), and is
the result of aggradation of mounds and swales

• Heterolithic stratification is characterized by

alternating sand and mud laminae or beds
• Flaser bedding is dominated by sand with isolated, thin mud
• Lenticular bedding is mud-dominated with isolated ripples

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Sedimentary structures

• Tide-influenced sedimentary structures can take

different shapes:
• Herringbone cross stratification indicates bipolar flow
directions, but are rare
• Mud-draped cross strata are much more common, and are
the result of alternating bedform migration during high
flow velocities and mud deposition during high or low tide
• Tidal bundles are characterized by a sand-mud couplet
with varying thickness; tidal bundle sequences consist
of a series of bundles that can be related to neap-spring

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Sedimentary structures

Gravity-flow deposits

• Debris-flow deposits are typically poorly sorted,

matrix-supported sediments with random clast
orientation and no sedimentary structures; thickness
and grain size commonly remain unchanged in a
proximal to distal direction
• Turbidites, the deposits formed by turbidity currents,
are typically normally graded, ideally composed of five
units (Bouma-sequence with divisions ‘a’-‘e’), reflecting
decreasing flow velocities and associated bedforms

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Sedimentary structures

• Imbrication commonly occurs in water-lain gravels and

conglomerates, and is characterized by discoid (flat) clasts
consistently dipping upstream

• Sole marks are erosional sedimentary structures on a bed

surface that have been preserved by subsequent burial
• Scour marks (caused by erosive turbulence)
• Tool marks (caused by imprints of objects)

• Paleocurrent measurements can be based on any

sedimentary structure indicating a current direction (e.g.,
cross stratification, imbrication, flute casts)

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Sedimentary structures

• Trace fossils (ichnofossils) are the tracks, trails or

burrows left behind in sediments by organisms (e.g.,
feeding traces, locomotion traces, escape burrows)
• Disturbance of sediments by organisms is known as
bioturbation, which can lead to the total destruction of
primary sedimentary structures
• Since numerous trace fossils are connected to specific
depositional environments, they can be very useful in
sedimentologic interpretations

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Sedimentary structures

• Soft-sediment deformation structures are sometimes

considered to be part of the initial diagenetic changes of
a sediment, and include:
• Slump structures (on slopes)
• Dewatering structures (upward escape of water, commonly
due to loading)
• Load structures (density contrasts between sand and
underlying wet mud; can in extreme cases cause mud

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Facies and depositional
• The facies concept refers to the sum of characteristics
of a sedimentary unit, commonly at a fairly small (cm-
m) scale
• Lithology
• Grain size
• Sedimentary structures
• Color
• Composition
• Biogenic content
• Lithofacies (physical and chemical characteristics)
• Biofacies (macrofossil content)
• Ichnofacies (trace fossils)
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Facies and depositional
• Facies analysis is the interpretation of strata in terms
of depositional environments (or depositional systems),
commonly based on a wide variety of observations
• Facies associations constitute several facies that
occur in combination, and typically represent one
depositional environment (note that very few individual
facies are diagnostic for one specific setting!)
• Facies successions (or facies sequences) are facies
associations with a characteristic vertical order
• Walther’s Law (1894) states that two different facies
found superimposed on one another and not separated
by an unconformity, must have been deposited adjacent
to each other at a given point in time

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Facies and depositional
• Standardized facies codes have been proposed (e.g., by
Andrew Miall), but they are frequently critized
• Sedimentary logs are one-dimensional
representations of vertical sedimentary successions
• Architectural elements are the two- or three-
dimensional ‘building blocks’ of a sediment or a
sedimentary rock
• The three-dimensional arrangement of architectural
elements is known as sedimentary architecture
• Facies models are schematic, three-dimensional
representations of specific depositional environments
that serve as norms for interpretation and prediction

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Facies and depositional
• Soils are formed by physical, chemical, and biological
processes that act at the land surface and lead to the
development of A-, B-, and C-horizons
• Paleosols are fossil soils that are increasingly
important in the facies analysis of continental strata:
• Paleoenvironmental indicators (e.g., climate)
• Indicators for sedimentation rates that have been
temporarily halted or strongly reduced

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Glacial environments

• Glaciers and ice sheets form where precipitation rates,

in the form of snow (accumulation), exceed melting
rates (ablation)
• Ice flows as a result of gravity and essentially acts like a
high-viscosity fluid exhibiting laminar flow
• Temperate (warm-based) vs. polar (cold-based) glaciers
reflect the temperature regime within the ice
• Ice shelves can form when a glacier or ice sheet reaches
the coast and extends offshore, and ultimately breaks up
into icebergs

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Glacial environments

• Abrasion leads to the formation of rock flour (mineralogically

diverse silt- and clay-sized sediment grains); plucking results
in coarser (up to boulder-sized) material
• Warm-based ice tends to be more erosive (abrasive) than
cold-based ice
• Till/tillite (also known as diamict/diamictite) is poorly
sorted, angular, and immature
• Lodgement till forms by active deposition under the ice
(relatively compact and usually fractured)
• Meltout till forms passively during melting

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Glacial environments

• Glaciofluvial or fluvioglacial deposits are sediments formed

in association with glacial meltwater (e.g., glacial outwash)
• More distal glaciolacustrine and glaciomarine deposits are
typically dominated by fine-grained sediment (rock flour),
along with ice-rafted debris and dropstones

• The preservation potential of glacial deposits is usually

limited, with the exception of tills and glaciomarine deposits
associated with big ice sheets

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Eolian environments

• Eolian deposits dominate deserts (mostly at low

latitudes, but sometimes arctic), but are also important
along shorelines (coastal dunes) and in association with
ice sheets (loess)
• Air is a low-density and low-viscosity fluid; therefore
high flow velocities are required to enable sediment
• Eolian deposits are mostly texturally and mineralogically
mature, due to the selective transport of specific grain
sizes and the large impact of grain-to-grain collision

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Eolian environments

• Sand dunes are the most common eolian landforms; their

geometry and resulting sedimentary structures depend
primarily on sediment supply and prevailing wind direction
• Large (>~5 m) sets of cross strata are very commonly eolian in
• Eolian sand sheets develop when sediment supply is limited
and are characterized by planar stratification; vegetation can
contribute to dune formation under such circumstances
• Loess is a homogeneous, very well sorted, silt-dominated
sediment that is deposited from suspension; it is commonly
associated with ice sheets that produce large quantities of
source material (rock flour)

EaES 350 71
Lacustrine environments

• Playa (saline) lakes are hydrologically closed, ephemeral

water bodies that form in arid environments and are
characterized by mud-evaporite couplets
• Freshwater lakes are permanent (commonly
hydrologically open) water bodies
• Waves and relatively weak wind-driven currents constitute
the main mechanisms of sediment transport
• Density stratification develops under seasonal climate
conditions and when currents are limited

EaES 350 72
Lacustrine environments

• Coarse sediments mainly occur on lake margins

(lacustrine deltas, beaches)
• In the central parts of lakes, deposition occurs from
suspension and by means of turbidity currents
• Stratified lakes promote the accumulation of organic
matter and the formation of varves; organics are
especially important in small lakes
• Carbonates of both chemical and biogenic origin can
contribute significantly to lake sediments

EaES 350 73
Lacustrine environments

• The final stage of filling of lakes commonly involves an

important organic component
• Hydrosere: vertical succession of organic deposits
associated with the transition from a limnic, through a
telmatic, to a terrestrial environment
• Gyttja --> fen peat --> wood peat --> moss peat

EaES 350 74
Fluvial/deltaic/coastal environments

Fluvial environments

• Bedrock rivers essentially do not contribute to the

stratigraphic record, contrary to alluvial rivers

• Alluvial fans are relatively steep (>1-2°) cones

consisting of coarse-grained facies and constitute the
most proximal fluvial depositional environments (usually
at the break of slope on the edge of a floodplain)
• Debris flows dominate on small and steep alluvial fans
• Sheetfloods are common on larger and gentler alluvial fans

EaES 350 75
Fluvial/deltaic/coastal environments

Fluvial environments

• Ephemeral rivers are dry during a significant part of the

year, contrary to perennial rivers
• Floodplains are the areas occupied by river channels, as
well as the surrounding, flat (overbank) areas that are
subject to flooding
• Discharge is confined to the channel until bankfull
discharge is reached; from that point on overbank flow
can occur, submerging the entire floodplain

EaES 350 76
Fluvial/deltaic/coastal environments

Fluvial environments

• Channel patterns (fluvial styles) are commonly classified as:

• Braided rivers
• Meandering rivers
• Straight rivers
• Anastomosing rivers
• Fluvial style is primarily controlled by specific stream power
(W m-2 ) and grain size, but also by bank stability and the
amount of bed load
ρ =fluid density; Q=discharge; s=slope (gradient); w=channel width

EaES 350 77
Fluvial/deltaic/coastal environments

Fluvial environments

• Bars are sandy or gravelly macroforms in channels that are

emergent, mostly unvegetated features at low flow stage, and
undergo submergence and rapid modification during high
• Point bars form on inner banks and typically accrete laterally,
commonly resulting in lateral-accretion surfaces; mid-channel or
braid bars accrete both laterally and downstream
• Braided rivers are characterized by a dominance of braid bars;
meandering rivers primarily contain point bars; in straight (and
most anastomosing) rivers bars are almost absent

EaES 350 78
Fluvial/deltaic/coastal environments

Fluvial environments

• Channel belts consist of channel-bar and channel-fill deposits;

the proportion of the two generally decreases markedly from braided
rivers to straight or anastomosing rivers
• The geometry of a channel belt (width/thickness ratio) is a function
of the channel width and the degree of lateral migration; values are
typically much higher for braided systems (>>100) than for straight
or anastomosing systems (<25)
• Residual-channel deposits are predominantly muddy
(occasionally organic) deposits that accumulate in an abandoned
channel where flow velocities are extremely small

EaES 350 79
Fluvial/deltaic/coastal environments

Fluvial environments

• Overbank environments are dominated by fine-grained

facies (predominantly muds)
• Natural-levee deposits are wedges of sediment that form
adjacent to the channel, dominated by fine sand and silt
exhibiting planar stratification or (climbing) ripple cross
• Crevasse-splay deposits are usually cones of sandy to silty
facies with both coarsening-upward and fining-upward
successions, and are formed by small, secondary channels during
peak flow
• Flood-basin deposits are the most distal facies, consisting
entirely of sediments deposited from suspension, and are
volumetrically very important (mainly in low-energy fluvial

EaES 350 80
Fluvial/deltaic/coastal environments

Fluvial environments

• Paleosols (well drained conditions) and peats (poorly

drained conditions) occur frequently in overbank
environments and are important indicators of variations
of clastic aggradation rates and the position relative to
active channels
• Lacustrine deposits can be important in overbank
environments characterized by high water tables, and
are also found in distal settings

EaES 350 81
Fluvial/deltaic/coastal environments

Fluvial environments

• Facies successions in sandy to gravelly channel deposits

typically fine upward, from a coarse channel lag, through
large-scale to small-scale cross stratified sets (commonly
with decreasing set height), and finally overlain by muddy
overbank deposits
• Facies successions produced by different fluvial styles can
be extremely similar!
• The geometry and three-dimensional arrangement of
architectural elements therefore provides a much better
means of inferring fluvial styles from the sedimentary record

EaES 350 82
Fluvial/deltaic/coastal environments

Fluvial environments

• Avulsion is the sudden diversion of a channel to a new

location on the floodplain, leading to the abandonment
of a channel belt and the initiation of a new one
• Alluvial architecture refers to the three-dimensional
arrangement of channel-belt deposits and overbank
deposits in a fluvial succession
• The nature of alluvial architecture (e.g., the proportion
of channel-belt to overbank deposits) is dependent on
fluvial style, aggradation rate, and the frequency of

EaES 350 83
Fluvial/deltaic/coastal environments

Deltaic environments

• Deltas form where a river enters a standing body of water

(ocean, sea, lake) and forms a thick deposit that may or
may not form protuberances
• The delta plain is the subaerial part of a delta (gradational
upstream to a floodplain); the delta front (delta slope and
prodelta) is the subaqueous component
• Delta plains are commonly characterized by distributaries
and flood basins (upper delta plain) or interdistributary
bays (lower delta plain), as well as numerous crevasse
• Upper delta plains contain facies assemblages that are very
similar to fluvial settings

EaES 350 84
Fluvial/deltaic/coastal environments

Deltaic environments

• Mouth bars form at the upper edge of the delta front,

at the mouth of distributaries; they are mostly sandy
and tend to coarsen upwards
• The delta slope is commonly 1-2° and consists of finer
(usually silty) facies; the most distal prodelta is
dominated by even finer sediment
• Progradation (basinward building) of deltas leads to
coarsening-upward successions, and progradation rates
depend on sediment supply and basin bathymetry
(water depth)

EaES 350 85
Fluvial/deltaic/coastal environments

Deltaic environments

• Delta morphology reflects the relative importance of

fluvial, tidal, and wave processes, as well as gradient
and sediment supply
• River-dominated deltas occur in microtidal settings with
limited wave energy, where delta-lobe progradation is
significant and redistribution of mouth bars is limited
• Wave-dominated deltas are characterized by mouth
bars reworked into shore-parallel sand bodies and beaches
• Tide-dominated deltas exhibit tidal mudflats and mouth
bars that are reworked into elongate sand bodies
perpendicular to the shoreline

EaES 350 86
Fluvial/deltaic/coastal environments

Deltaic environments

• Coarse-grained deltas are composed of gravelly facies

and form where alluvial fans or relatively steep braided
rivers enter a water body
• Delta cycles are the result of repetitive switching of
delta lobes, comparable to avulsion in fluvial
environments; this leads to characteristic vertical
successions with progradational facies and
transgressive facies

EaES 350 87
Fluvial/deltaic/coastal environments

Coastal environments

• Erosional coasts are commonly characterized by cliffs,

whereas constructional coasts can be formed by clastic,
carbonate, or evaporite facies
• The morphology of constructional coasts is determined
by sediment supply, wave energy, and tidal range, as
well as climate and sea-level history

EaES 350 88
Fluvial/deltaic/coastal environments

Coastal environments

• Beaches form when sand or gravel is available and

wave energy is significant, and result in low-angle cross-
stratified deposits and cross strata formed by wave
• Beaches can either be connected directly to the land
and form strand plains or chenier plains (the latter
consisting of beach ridges separated by muds), or be
separated by lagoons or tidal basins (the latter
consisting of tidal channels, tidal flats, and salt
marshes) and form either spits or barrier islands

EaES 350 89
Fluvial/deltaic/coastal environments

Coastal environments

• Barrier islands are especially prolific in environments

with a high wave energy and a limited tidal range, that
have experienced transgression (relative sea-level rise)
• The tidal inlets between barrier islands are sites of deep
erosional scour and are associated with flood-tidal deltas
(lagoonal side) and ebb-tidal deltas (seaward side)
• Washovers can form during major storm events, and are
found elsewhere across barrier islands
• Coastal dunes are common features associated with
sandy beaches

EaES 350 90
Fluvial/deltaic/coastal environments

Coastal environments

• Estuaries are semi-enclosed coastal water bodies

where fluvial and marine processes interact
• Tide-dominated estuaries have tidal channels with bars
and tidal mudflats that contain tidal sedimentary
structures (e.g., tidal bundles, heterolithic stratification)
• Wave-dominated estuaries are partly enclosed by a
coastal barrier and have well-developed bay-head deltas

EaES 350 91
Fluvial/deltaic/coastal environments

Coastal environments

• Carbonate coastal environments can exhibit comparable

characteristics as clastic coasts (i.e., barriers and lagoons),
consisting of carbonate sands and muds, respectively
• Stromatolites (algal or bacterial mats) commonly form on carbonate-
rich tidal flats

• Arid coastal environments are characterized by sabkhas and

salinas, coastal plains frequently inundated by saline water and
hypersaline lagoons, respectively, where evaporites (notably
anhydrite and gypsum) can accumulate

EaES 350 92
Shallow/deep marine environments

Shallow marine environments

• Shallow seas can be subdivided into clastic and

carbonate-dominated systems, depending mainly on
sediment supply and climatic setting
• Idealized models predict a general decrease of grain
size with water depth (i.e., away from the shoreline);
however, this simple picture is complicated by a large
number of factors (e.g., shelf bathymetry)

EaES 350 93
Shallow/deep marine environments

Shallow marine environments

• Storm-dominated clastic shelves ideally exhibit a transition

from predominantly wave-rippled sands in the upper
shoreface, to alternating sands and muds (tempestites with
hummocky cross stratification) in the lower shoreface, to
muddy facies below storm wave base
• Tide-dominated clastic shelves may exhibit erosional
features, sand ribbons, and sand waves with decreasing flow
velocities, commonly associated with mud-draped subaqueous
dunes; tidal sand ridges (tens of m high, many km across) are
characteristic of shelves with a high supply of sand
• Bioturbation can obliterate many primary sedimentary
structures in shelf environments

EaES 350 94
Shallow/deep marine environments

Shallow marine environments

• Shallow seas within the photic zone are the premier

‘carbonate factories’
• Carbonate platforms can cover continental shelves or
epicontinental seas, when the conditions for carbonate
production (temperature, salinity, light conditions) are
• Isolated platforms (atolls) are found in shallow seas
surrounded by deep water, like extinct volcanoes

EaES 350 95
Shallow/deep marine environments

Shallow marine environments

• Carbonate ramps exhibit processes and characteristics

comparable to clastic shelves, with carbonate sands and muds
ultimately producing a seaward transition from grainstone to
mudstone, commonly with similar sedimentary structures
• Rimmed carbonate shelves consist of a coral reef or
carbonate sand barrier at some distance from the mainland; the
shelf lagoon can be up to many tens of kilometers wide
• Boundstones dominate the reef facies
• Shelf lagoon facies are mostly fine-grained and ultimately lead to
the formation of mudstones and wackestones

EaES 350 96
Shallow/deep marine environments

Deep marine environments

• The continental slope is a major source of sediment for the

deep sea, and is a setting where slumps can occur
• Debris flows and turbidity currents are the main mechanisms
of transport from the continental slope into the deep sea;
these processes can be triggered by external forcing (e.g., an
earthquake) or by the slope reaching a critical state as a
result of ongoing deposition
• Debris-flow deposits and turbidites are often genetically
• Turbidites can be both clastic (commonly leading to the
formation of wackes) or calcareous

EaES 350 97
Shallow/deep marine environments

Deep marine environments

• Submarine canyons at the shelf edge (commonly related to

deltas) are connected to submarine fans on the ocean
• Contrary to debris flows, turbidites exhibit a distinct
proximal to distal fining
• Submarine fans share several characteristics with deltas;
they consist of a feeder channel that divides into numerous
distributary channels bordered by natural levees and are
subject to avulsions
• Proximal fan (trunk channel)
• Medial fan (lobes)
• Distal fan

EaES 350 98
Shallow/deep marine environments

Deep marine environments

• Basal Bouma-divisions have the highest preservation

potential updip; upper Bouma-divisions are more
common downdip
• Turbidite lobes characterize the medial fan and may
exhibit the most complete Bouma sequences
• The Bouma-model is increasingly challenged, because
many turbidites do not conform to it (e.g., ‘high-
concentration turbidites’)
• Contourites are formed by ocean currents and
commonly represent reworked turbidites

EaES 350 99
Shallow/deep marine environments

Deep marine environments

• Pelagic sediments primarily have a biogenic origin

• Calcareous ooze (e.g., foraminifera) forms above the calcite
compensation depth (CCD) at ~4000 m depth
• Siliceous ooze (e.g., radiolarians, diatoms) forms between
the CCD and ~6000 m depth where silica dissolves; it
lithifies into cherts
• Hemipelagic sediments consist of fine-grained (muddy)
terrigenous material that is deposited from suspension
• Eolian dust is an important component (~50%) of
hemipelagic (and pelagic) facies
• Black shales have a 1-15% organic-matter content and form
in anoxic bottom waters

EaES 350 100

Stratigraphic principles

• Lithostratigraphy = subdivision of the stratigraphic

record into sediments or rocks by means of lithologic
characteristics and stratigraphic position
• Biostratigraphy = subdivision of the stratigraphic
record into sediments or rocks by means of fossil
• Chronostratigraphy = subdivision of the stratigraphic
record into bodies of sediment or rock represented
by a particular age, separated from underlying and
overlying units by isochronous surfaces
• Geochronology = subdivision of Earth history into
time intervals

EaES 350 101

Stratigraphic principles

• Type sections (stratotypes) constitute the standard of

reference for definition and recognition of a
stratigraphic unit or stratigraphic boundary; they are
defined where these are representative and well

• Stratigraphic relationships can be inferred from the

principle of superposition, unconformities, cross-cutting
relationships, ‘included fragments’, and ‘way-up

EaES 350 102

Stratigraphic principles


• The formation is the fundamental unit of

lithostratigraphic classification; just as the other
lithostratigraphic ranks (groups, members, beds), it should
be based on field description (i.e., fossil content and age
do not play a role)
• Mode of deposition (genesis) is not a criterion in the
distinction of lithostratigraphic units; this requires
interpretation and is therefore likely to undergo revision
over time
• Lithostratigraphic units should have some degree of
overall lithologic homogeneity, although diversity in detail
may in itself characterize a lithostratigraphic unit
EaES 350 103
Stratigraphic principles


• Lithostratigraphic units are commonly diachronous, as

opposed to chronostratigraphic units
• Detailed geologic mapping is usually strongly based on
lithostratigraphy, whereas overview geologic maps
usually show chronostratigraphic units
• Although objective lithostratigraphic classification
should be as simple and straightforward as possible,
reality demonstrates that this is not always the case; as
a result, in many areas revisions are frequently
proposed which can lead to extremely complicated and
confusing situations

EaES 350 104

Stratigraphic principles


• Evolution forms the initial basis for biostratigraphic subdivision, either

through the development of an increasing number of new species, or by
means of evolution of one particular species
• In general, Earth history shows an increase of the number of taxa, but
this process is punctuated by (mass) extinctions
• Depositional environments and geographic contrasts play an important
role in determining the nature of fossil assemblages
• The biozone is the fundamental biostratigraphic unit
• Biozones are strictly diachronous in most cases; however, over
geological time scales their boundaries can commonly be considered to
be isochronous, but their resolving power has limitations!

EaES 350 105

Stratigraphic principles


• A vast diversity of types of fossils exists; the following

criteria are important in determining how useful they are for
strictly stratigraphic purposes of correlation:
• Abundance and size
• Degree of dispersal
• Preservation potential
• Rate of speciation
• As a result, especially numerous marine microfossils (e.g.,
forams) are stratigraphically highly useful, whereas others
are more valuable for paleoecologic purposes
• Numerous pitfalls exist in the correlation of biozones (e.g.,
Quaternary pollen zones)

EaES 350 106

Stratigraphic principles


• Chronostratigraphic classification of sediments or rocks

involves the establishment of time lines (isochrons);
this, in turn, forms the basis for paleogeographic
• Traditionally, biostratigraphy has formed the most
important basis for chronostratigraphic classification
• Numerical dating techniques are becoming increasingly
important in defining chronostratigraphic units

EaES 350 107

Stratigraphic principles


• Radiometric dating methods are in essence based on

the decay of radioactive isotopes
N = N0e− λt

N=number of daughter isotopes; N0=initial number of parent

isotopes; λ =decay constant; t=time

• Radiometric dating involves a large number of isotopes

and decay series, with highly variable halflives and
applications (age ranges from less than a century to
billions of years)

EaES 350 108

Stratigraphic principles


• Mass spectrometry is the most commonly used technique to

measure the ratio between different isotopes
• Many sediments and sedimentary rocks are not suitable for
radiometric dating; indirect ages can sometimes be obtained
through dating of associated igneous rocks (e.g., volcanics)

• Luminescence dating is a relatively new technique that allows

quartz and feldspar grains up to several 100 kyr to be dated; it
is based on the measurement of a minute light signal that can
be released by these grains and that is proportional to time
after burial

EaES 350 109

Stratigraphic principles


• The Earth’s magnetic field is constantly subject to change

• Secular variations, continuous changes of the position of the
magnetic poles, take place over time scales of 101 to 103 years
• Reversals from ‘normal’ polarity to ‘reversed’ polarity occur over time
scales of 104 to 106 years
• Fine-grained sediments deposited from suspension can align
themselves according to the ambient geomagnetic field (the same
applies to volcanics upon cooling below the ‘Curie point’)
• If paleomagnetic changes are independently numerically dated, a
resulting magnetostratigraphy can be used to date sedimentary

EaES 350 110

Sequence stratigraphy

• Sequence stratigraphy constitutes a ‘minor revolution’

in the Earth sciences, and has certainly revitalized
• Sequence stratigraphy highlights the role of ‘allogenic’
(or external) controls on patterns of deposition, as
opposed to ‘autogenic’ controls that operate within
depositional environments
• Eustasy (changes in sea level)
• Subsidence (changes in basin tectonics)
• Sediment supply (changes in climate and hinterland

EaES 350 111

Sequence stratigraphy

• Accommodation refers to the space available for

deposition (closely connected to relative sea level in
shallow marine environments); however, application of
this concept to subaerial environments is problematic
• An increase of accommodation is necessary to build and
preserve a thick stratigraphic succession; this requires
eustatic sea-level rise and/or basin subsidence (i.e.,
relative sea-level rise), as well as sufficient sediment
• The subtle balance between relative sea-level change
and sediment supply controls whether aggradation,
regression (progradation), forced regression, or
transgression (retrogradation) will occur
EaES 350 112
Sequence stratigraphy

• A depositional sequence is a stratigraphic unit bounded

at its top and base by unconformities or their correlative
conformities, and typically embodies a continuum of
depositional environments, from updip (continental) to
downdip (deep marine)
• A relative sea-level fall on the order of tens of meters or
more will lead to a basinward shift of the shoreline and
an associated basinward shift of depositional
environments; commonly (but not always) this will be
accompanied by subaerial exposure, erosion, and
formation of a widespread unconformity known as a
sequence boundary
• Sequence boundaries are the key stratigraphic surfaces
that separate successive sequences

EaES 350 113

Sequence stratigraphy

• Parasequences are lower order stratal units separated by

(marine) flooding surfaces; they are commonly autogenic and
not necessarily the result of smaller-scale relative sea-level
• Systems tracts are the building blocks of sequences, and
different types of systems tracts represent different limbs of
a relative sea-level curve
• Falling-stage (forced regressive) systems tract
• Lowstand systems tract
• Transgressive systems tract
• Highstand systems tract
• The various systems tracts are characterized by their position
within a sequence, by shallowing or deepening upward facies
successions, or by parasequence stacking patterns

EaES 350 114

Sequence stratigraphy

• Maximum flooding surfaces form during the

culmination of sea-level rise, and maximum landward
translation of the shoreline, and constitute the
stratigraphic surface that separates the transgressive
and highstand systems tracts
• In the downdip realm (deep sea), where sedimentation
rates are very low during maximum flooding,
condensed sections develop

EaES 350 115

Sequence stratigraphy

• In a very general sense, relative sea-level fall leads to

reduced deposition and formation of sequence
boundaries in updip areas, and increased deposition in
downdip settings (e.g., submarine fans)
• Relative sea-level rise will lead to trapping of sediment
in the updip areas (e.g., coastal plains) and reduced
transfer of sediment to the deep sea (pelagic and
hemipelagic deposition; condensed sections)

EaES 350 116

Sequence stratigraphy

Clastic environments

• Relative sea-level fall in clastic environments commonly

leads to fluvial incision into offshore (shelf) deposits, usually
associated with soil formation (paleovalleys with
• Relative sea-level rise causes filling of paleovalleys,
commonly with estuarine or even shallow marine deposits
• Submarine fans and associated high aggradation rates in
the deep sea occur especially during late highstand and
lowstand, when sediments are less easily trapped updip of
the shelf break

EaES 350 117

Sequence stratigraphy

Carbonate environments

• Relative sea-level fall in carbonate environments can

lead to the development of karstic surfaces (dissolution
of limestones) or evaporites (e.g., sabkhas), depending
on the climate
• Highstands generally expand the area of the carbonate
factory (drowning of shelves) and vertical construction
of reefs, as well as accumulation of other carbonates is
• Extreme rates of relative sea-level rise can lead to the
drowning of carbonate platforms

EaES 350 118

Sequence stratigraphy

• Sequence-stratigraphic concepts contain numerous


• Variations in sediment supply can produce stratigraphic

products that are very similar to those formed by sea-level
• Sea-level fall does not necessarily always lead to the
formation of well-developed sequence boundaries (e.g.,
fluvial systems do not always respond to sea-level fall by
means of incision); sequence boundaries may therefore be
very indistinct and difficult to detect
• Allogenic incision is easily confused with autogenic scour

EaES 350 119

Sequence stratigraphy

Sea-level change

• Causes of relative sea-level change (amplitudes ~101-102 m)

• Tectono-eustasy (time scales of 10-100 Myr)
• Glacio-eustasy (time scales of 10-100 kyr)
• Local tectonics
• The time scales of these controls have given rise to the
distinction of eustatic cycles of different periods
• First-order (108 yr) and second-order (107 yr) cycles (primarily
• Third-order (106 yr) cycles (mechanism not well understood)
• Fourth-order (105 yr) and fifth-order (104 yr) cycles (primarily

EaES 350 120

Sequence stratigraphy

Sea-level change

• The global sea-level curve for the Mesozoic and

Cenozoic contains first, second, and third-order eustatic
cycles that are supposed to be globally synchronous,
but it is a highly questionable generalization
• Conceptual problems: the role of differential local tectonics
is extremely difficult to single out
• Dating problems: correlation is primarily based on
biostratigraphy that typically has a resolving power
comparable to the period of third-order cycles

EaES 350 121

Sequence stratigraphy

Seismic stratigraphy

• Seismic reflection profiling forms the basis of

seismic stratigraphy, which in turn has been the
foundation for the development of sequence
• The technique is based on contrasts in acoustic
impedance between different materials; reflections of
sound or shock waves occur at transitions between
AI = or
different types of sediment vρ rock

v=sonic velocity; ρ =sediment or rock density

EaES 350 122

Sequence stratigraphy

Seismic stratigraphy

• A seismic section consists of a large number of vertical traces;

acoustic impedance contrasts that can be correlated between
large numbers of traces constitute reflectors
• Seismic reflectors are often believed to approximate
isochronous surfaces that may be relevant in a sequence-
stratigraphic context
• The vertical resolution of seismic profiling has increased
considerably over time, and is now on the order of 101 m, but
depths and thicknesses have to be derived from two-way travel
times which may occur with the aid of geophysical logs
• 3D seismic imaging is becoming increasingly important

EaES 350 123

Sequence stratigraphy


• Subtle changes in the earth’s orbital parameters cause

variations in the distribution of solar radiation, known as
Milankovitch cycles
• Eccentricity (~100 kyr)
• Obliquity (~40 kyr)
• Precession (~20 kyr)
• When Milankovitch cycles produce sufficiently large
climatic changes, they may leave an imprint in the
stratigraphic record (e.g., sapropels in deep marine
• Beware of the ‘magic number’ syndrome!

EaES 350 124

Sedimentary basins

• Sedimentary basins are the subsiding areas where

sediments accumulate to form stratigraphic successions
• The tectonic setting is the premier criterion to
distinguish different types of sedimentary basins
• Extensional basins occur within or between plates and
are associated with increased heat flow due to hot mantle
• Collisional basins occur where plates collide, either
characterized by subduction of an oceanic plate or
continental collision
• Transtensional basins occur where plates move in a
strike-slip fashion relative to each other

EaES 350 125

Sedimentary basins


• Rift basins develop in continental crust and constitute

the incipient extensional basin type; if the process
continues it will ultimately lead to the development of
an ocean basin flanked by passive margins,
alternatively an intracratonic basin will form
• Rift basins consist of a graben or half-graben separated
from surrounding horsts by normal faults; they can be
filled with both continental and marine deposits
• Intracratonic basins develop when rifting ceases, which
leads to lithospheric cooling due to reduced heat flow;
they are commonly large but not very deep

EaES 350 126

Sedimentary basins


• Proto-oceanic troughs form the transitional stage to the

development of large ocean basins, and are underlain by
incipient oceanic crust
• Passive margins develop on continental margins along the
edges of ocean basins; subsidence is caused by lithospheric
cooling and sediment loading, and depending on the
environmental setting clastic or carbonate facies may
• Ocean basins are dominated by pelagic deposition (biogenic
material and clays) in the central parts and turbidites along
the margins

EaES 350 127

Sedimentary basins


• Subduction is a common process at active margins where plates

collide and at least one oceanic plate is involved; several types
of sedimentary basins can be formed due to subduction,
including trench basins, forearc basins, backarc basins, and
retroarc foreland basins
• Trench basins can be very deep, and the sedimentary fill
depends primarily on whether they are intra-oceanic or proximal
to a continent
• Accretionary prisms are ocean sediments that are scraped off
the subducting plate; they sometimes form island chains

EaES 350 128

Sedimentary basins


• Forearc basins form between the accretionary prism and

the volcanic arc and subside entirely due to sediment
loading; like trench basins, their fill depends strongly on
whether they are intra-oceanic or proximal to a continent
• Backarc basins are extensional basins that may form on the
overriding plate, behind the volcanic arc
• Retroarc foreland basins form as a result of lithospheric
loading behind a mountainous arc under a compressional
regime; they are commonly filled with continental deposits

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Sedimentary basins


• Continental collision leads to the creation of orogenic

(mountain) belts; lithospheric loading causes the
development of peripheral foreland basins, which
typically exhibit a fill from deep marine through shallow
marine to continental deposits
• Foreland basins can accumulate exceptionally thick
(~10 km) stratigraphic successions

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Sedimentary basins


• Strike-slip basins form in transtensional regimes and

are usually relatively small but also deep; they are
commonly filled with coarse facies (e.g., alluvial fans)
adjacent to lacustrine or marine deposits

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Models in sedimentary geology

What is a model?
• Models are expressions of our ideas how things work
• Conceptual models (qualitative models)
• Physical models (experimental models)
• Flume-operated simulations of sedimentologic or stratigraphic
phenomena at scales ranging from bedforms to basins
• Mathematical models (computer models)
• Deterministic models (physically-based or process-based) have
one set of input parameters and therefore yield one unique
• Stochastic models have variable input parameters, commonly
derived from probability-density functions (pdf’s), and therefore
have multiple outcomes; as a consequence model runs must be
repeated many times (realizations) and subsequently ‘averaged’

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Models in sedimentary geology

• Forward models simulate sets of processes and responses

in a system that has specified (assumed) initial boundary
conditions (e.g., the evolution of a sedimentary basin given
an initial configuration)
• Inverse models use observations as a starting point and
aim to estimate initial boundary conditions and combinations
of processes and responses that have operated to produce
the observed conditions (i.e., flip side of forward models)

• What is the goal of modeling in sedimentary geology?

• Understanding processes and responses in sedimentary
systems (experimental and process-based models)
• Prediction of sedimentary architecture and stratigraphy
(primarily stochastic models)

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Models in sedimentary geology

• Commonly used models in sedimentary geology:

• Architectural models typically simulate specific

depositional environments (e.g., alluvial architecture)
and may involve a large set of physical or empirical

• Stratigraphic models are widely used to simulate

basin-scale stratal patterns (e.g., sequence
stratigraphy); many are based on a diffusion equation
that relates rates of sediment transport to topographic

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Applied sedimentary geology

• There are two main fields of application of sedimentary

• Economic issues (e.g., hydrocarbon and groundwater
extraction, sand and gravel resources) constitute the
traditional applications of sedimentary geology
• Environmental issues (e.g., coastal management,
groundwater pollution studies) are finding rapidly increasing

• The two following case studies exemplify applied

sedimentary geology:
• Reservoir modeling (Rhine-Meuse Delta)
• Coastal wetland loss (Mississippi Delta)

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Applied sedimentary geology

Reservoir modeling

• Fluid flow (e.g., groundwater, including pollutants) through

porous media is extremely dependent on sedimentary
architecture (3D distribution of porosity and permeability)
• Sands and gravels are mostly highly permeable (aquifers); muds
and organics are relatively impermeable (aquitards)
• Prediction of the 3D distribution of sediments with different
hydraulic properties (reservoir modeling) is therefore a major
challenge for the geoscientist, especially in settings that exhibit
a large spatial variability, like many fluvial environments

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Applied sedimentary geology

Reservoir modeling

• Stochastic modeling of alluvial architecture in the Rhine-Meuse

Delta (The Netherlands) was done with a so-called ‘object-based
model’ that simulates the distribution of objects defined by
specified geometries (in this example channel belts) in 3D
space, constrained by well data
• The role of the geoscientist is to determine whether the output
of stochastic models makes any sedimentological sense
• Process-based models have a considerable advantage over
stochastic models, since these are by definition based on
sedimentologically realistic processes
• These techniques are equally applicable in groundwater and
hydrocarbon reservoirs!

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Applied sedimentary geology

Coastal wetland loss

• Wetlands in the coastal zone belong to the most

valuable ecosystems (1-2 million $ km-2 yr-1), mainly due
to the following services:
• Waste treatment (recovery or breakdown of nutrients)
• Biological productivity (food production)
• Disturbance regulation (storm protection)
• Recreation (tourism)

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Applied sedimentary geology

Coastal wetland loss

• The Mississippi Delta is an area undergoing extremely

rapid rates of subsidence due to crustal (tectonic)
downwarping and compaction (i.e., high rates of relative
sea-level rise)
• Accelerated eustatic sea-level rise (associated with
greenhouse warming) and reduced sediment input due
to human interference (particularly the construction of
artificial levees) strongly amplifies the problem

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Applied sedimentary geology

Coastal wetland loss

• A thorough understanding of deltaic evolution over

various time scales is indispensable to restore the
sediment budget, and, hence, the ecological equilibrium
• The geoscientist can contribute, for instance, with the
following insights:
• Sediment dispersal patterns and rates (e.g., progradation
rates of delta lobes and crevasse splays, longshore
sediment fluxes)
• Barrier island dynamics

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• Uniformitarianism remains a cornerstone of modern

sedimentary geology; observations of modern processes
of sediment transport and deposition must constitute the
basis for the interpretation of ancient products
• Sedimentology and stratigraphy have evolved rapidly
over the last decades
• The 1960s and 1970s saw a decline of interest in classical
stratigraphy and an emphasis on autogenic processes in
depositional environments (process-oriented sedimentology,
facies models)
• The 1980s and 1990s saw a revival of stratigraphy and a
(sometimes obsessive) focus on allogenic processes
(sequence stratigraphy and cyclostratigraphy)
• Integration of the two is a major challenge for the future

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• The interpretation of ancient depositional environments is

increasingly based on the analysis of three-dimensional
sedimentary architecture, rather than the analysis of
one-dimensional vertical sections or two-dimensional cross
sections or outcrops
• Quaternary environments play an increasingly important
role, since they allow a relatively straightforward inference
of environments of deposition, including their relationships
to independently inferred changes in climate, sea level, and
tectonism by means of numerical dating techniques
• Apart from traditional interests in economic sedimentary
geology (e.g., oil, gas, minerals), environmental
sedimentary geology (e.g., groundwater pollution) is
becoming more important

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