You are on page 1of 5



ELSFiVIER Sedimentary Geology 104 ( 1996) 243-247

Episodic event deposits versus stratigraphic sequences-

shall the twain never meet?
R.H. Dott Jr.
Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706. USA

Accepted 27 September 1995


In the early half of the 20th century, questions were raised about different rates of deposition reflected in the stratigraphic
record and of small gaps or diastems. Even more discussion centered upon rhythms and cycles of deposition-at one
extreme were glacial varves and at the other were Carboniferous cyclothems. After World War II, interest in stratigraphic
cycles declined. Then the turbidity current revolution stimulated interest in event deposits, which interest has surged again
recently with a focus upon storm deposits. Meanwhile, the recent dramatic growth of sequence stratigraphy has rekindled
interest in both cyclicity and eustasy.
The two themes-events and cycles-should be better integrated, for there is considerable confusion about the
interpretation of high-frequency sequences. There is also a need to reconcile the current fad for Milankovitch-related
sedimentary cycles versus more or less random event deposits. The most familiar event deposits are turbidites in deep-water
and tempestites in shallow-water environments. More subtle are the diastems, which include non-depositional surfaces as
well as scoured surfaces. Other processes that can produce event deposits include avalanches and tsunamis. Potentially, any
type of event deposit could be mistaken for a sequence boundary. For example, submarine megabreccias could be formed
either by a seismic event unrelated to any sea level change, or by slope failure resulting from a eustatic fall associated with a
sequence boundary. To surmount the intellectual barrier to alternate interpretations requires careful attention to processes,
time resolution, and objective tests for periodicity.

1. Introduction the implications of these completeness tests and the

book Cyclic and Event Stmti$cation (Einsele and
I .I. Episodic deposition Seilacher, 1982) emphasized the importance of punc-
tuated deposition using diverse examples from the
Episodic event deposits have received much atten- stratigraphic record. I have also argued that much of
tion during the past 15 years. For example, Ager the sedimentary record reflects discontinuous or
eloquently characterized the stratigraphic record as episodic events, such as storms, more than continu-
“a lot of holes tied together with sediment” (1980, ous, day-to-day processes (Dott, 1983, 1988). Aigner
p. 3.5). Sadler (1981) and Schindel (1982) presented and Reineck (1982) and Aigner (1985) documented
elegant completeness tests based upon apparent ac- the importance of storm deposits in both modem and
cumulation rates. Van Andel (1981) speculated about ancient strata. More recently, Einsele et al. (1991)

0037-0738/96/$15.00 0 1996 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved

SSDf 0037-0738(95)00 I3 I -X
244 R.H. Dott Jr./Sedimentary Geology 104 (1996) 243-247

and Ager (1993) have produced second books stress- (Vail et al., 1977). Although Sloss has always at-
ing the punctuated perspective of the stratigraphic tributed the primary cause for sequences to tectonism
record. And Sadler (1993) has argued that apparent (e.g. Sloss, 1991), Vail and his associates at Exxon
average rates of unsteady processes decrease as Production Research Co. have always considered
longer time spans are studied, which has important eustasy to be the primary factor. Evidence from the
implications for accommodation space and thus se- deep-sea record that Quatemary glacial-interglacial
quence stratigraphy. events correlate well with the Milankovitch orbital
The view that the stratigraphic record reflects cycles gave strong impetus to a paradigm of period-
processes with greatly varying rates and frequencies icity for many older stratigraphic patterns as well
of recurrence is not new. Early in the century, Bar- (e.g. Fischer, 1981).
rell (1917) recognized a disparity between modem The notion of globally synchronous rhythms dates
depositional rates and ancient apparent accumulation back at least to the turn of the century and the
rates, which challenged a subtle implication of strict enormous influence of T.C. Chamberlin’s hypothesis
uniformitarian thinking that most sedimentary rocks of diastrophic control of stratigraphy with its corol-
reflect continuous, day-to-day processes. He pro- lary of periodic worldwide unconformities (Dott,
posed, instead, that the ancient record must contain 1992a). Between 1900 and 1950, rhythmic cycles of
many subtle breaks (Ager’s holes) with time values all sorts were popular. Besides pulsations of the sea a
of the order of years to decades; he coined diastem la Chamberlin, there were annual glacial lake varves,
for such intraformational breaks. Although Barrel1 climatic cycles, Carboniferous cyclothems, global
was commonly cited, little further attention was given tectonic cycles, and evolutionary rhythms (Dott,
to the issues he raised until the 195Os, when both 1992b). Periodic cycles were being discovered (or
turbidity currents and the hundred-year flood concept invented) everywhere and books appeared with such
became well established. Then the question of eloquent titles as Pulsation Theory (Grabau, 1940)
whether rare, large-magnitude or frequent, smaller- and Pulse of the Earth (Umbgrove, 1947). By 1950,
magnitude processes leave a greater impact upon the however, enthusiasm for periodic oscillations had
sedimentary record became a matter of lively debate. been largely damped out (e.g. Gilluly, 1949; Henbest,
Simpson (1952) and Gretener (1967) presented ele- 1952; Moore, 1959). After nearly three decades in
gant commentaries on the probability of rare events eclipse, however, the concept of global rhythms has
in a geological context. The more recent stratigraphic returned to popularity again thanks to a large body of
completeness analyses (e.g. Sadler, 1981; Schindel, evidence of global, sequence-bounding unconformi-
1982) built upon such stochastic arguments. More ties obtained by the petroleum industry with high-
recently, a symposium on ‘convulsive events’ (Clif- resolution seismic profiles plus evidence from the
ton, 1988) reinforced the concept of episodic deposi- deep-sea record, which supports the importance of
tion. the Milankovitch cycles for climate (Dott, 1992b).

1.2. Periodic sequences

Meanwhile, another thread of stratigraphic think- 2. Can event stratigraphy and sequence stratigra-
ing has been spun out during the past thirty years. phy co-exist?
Large-scale discontinuous stratigraphic patterns were
being recognized during the 1950s when Sloss first Presently, sequence stratigraphy controlled by pe-
formally defined six widespread, unconformity- riodic eustatic fluctuations seems to be the dominant
bounded sequences across the North American cra- paradigm in sedimentary geology. Conversely, more
ton @loss et al., 1949; Sloss, 1963). While these or less random episodic processes, which received so
original sequences (now sometimes termed superse- much attention in the 1980s are being eclipsed. This
quences) had time spans of the order of 10’ years, trend seems ill founded, however, and is bound to
later refinement emphasizes higher-frequency pack- produce serious errors of interpretation if left unchal-
ages with time spans of the order of 105-IO6 years lenged.
R.H. Dott Jr./ Sedimentary Geology 104 (1996) 243-247 245

2.1. Event stratigraphy faces, and possibly skeletal depauperate or death

assemblages. Besides physical events, which are the
Event deposits do exist and in large volumes in main subject of this symposium, purely chemical
many sedimentary basins. Consider, for example, events also may produce important episodic deposits.
turbidites, which perhaps represent our finest exam- For example, an oxygen crisis might be reflected by
ple of episodic deposition. Most of the sediment in a a widespread fossil death assemblage, whereas a
succession of such deposits accumulated during only brief salinity crisis could be reflected by a skeletal
a fraction of the total time represented by that suc- death assemblage associated with a basinwide evap-
cession. Suppose, for example, that 100 sandstone orite stratum.
turbidite beds averaging 20 cm thick alternate with The preservation potential of episodic event de-
pelagic shale beds averaging 1 cm thick, all of which posits must be considered, for if such deposits are
accumulated during 100,000 years. Then 99% of the commonly removed or obscured after deposition,
total thickness would have been deposited by instan- then their importance may seem of little more than
taneous currents that occurred only once per 1000 theoretical interest. In some very dynamic environ-
years on the average. ments, such as a volcanically active region, repeti-
Tsunamis (Coleman, 1968) and major storms pro- tion of high-energy episodic events may remove the
duce similar sedimentary records, which are difficult record of most earlier events, thus distorting our
to distinguish in ancient strata, but storms have impression of the frequency and total importance of
received much more attention. Consider the real such events. Bioturbation also has great potential for
world of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. The obscuring the record, as is evidenced by the almost
statistics of hurricane frequency suggest that any complete obliteration by animals of the famous 1961
portion of the northern coastline of the Gulf of Hurricane Carla storm sand layer in the northern
Mexico should be crossed by an average of one Gulf of Mexico (McGowan, oral communication,
storm per century (Tannehill, 1969). Although rare 1981). Diagenetic changes after burial also have the
from the average human’s perspective, phenomena potential to obscure the records of event deposition.
like Gulf Coast hurricanes, the 500-year flood of the In summary, there is a danger of underestimating the
upper Mississippi River in 1993, and tsunamis, as true importance of event deposition because of post-
well, must be regarded as common in a geological depositional modification or removal of some of its
context. Nonetheless, all of these episodic processes record. Very careful field examination is necessary
are very different from fairweather, day-to-day ones, to minimize this danger.
but whether such rare, energetic or the common,
mild process leaves the greater imprint upon the 2.2. Sequence stratigraphy
sedimentary record is not always clear.
I have suggested that we should distinguish be- Valid stratigraphic sequences certainly do exist,
tween positive and negative deviations from the norm as well, and are especially clear at the larger scale of
for any given environment. Thus storms, volcanic supersequences and sequences. It is at the scale of
eruptions, landslides, tsunamis, and asteroid impacts parasequences that conflicts among genetic interpre-
are much greater than the norm in intensity both of tation may arise. Without going into detail, consider
energy and of sediment accumulation. Conversely, the following five scenarios for potential misinterpre-
the slowing or cessation of deposition and stunting tation.
or annihilation of organisms obviously fall below (1) Scoured surface (diastem) and/or an abrupt
normal intensities of energy and accumulation. Posi- textural change. Episodic interpretation: a random
tive deviations tend to produce either erosion sur- storm or tsunami event. Sequence interpretation:
faces due to sediment removal (e.g. Barrell’s di- parasequence boundary with eustatic fall.
astems) and/or abnormal volumes or coarseness of (2) Thin intraclast conglomerate layer. Episodic
deposits; chaotic textures, as in landslides, may also interpretation: random storm or tsunami event. Se-
result. Negative deviations tend to produce con- quence interpretation: flooding surface with eustatic
densed sections, hardground and firmground sur- rise.
246 R.H. Dott Jr./ Sedimentary Geology 104 (1996) 243-247

(3) Carbonate-clast megabreccia stratum. Episod- spectral analysis, etc.) and to consider other explana-
ic interpretation: platform failure by earthquake or tions, such as random or episodic causes like storms
storm. Sequence interpretation: lowstand deposit due or tsunamis.
to eustatic fall.
(4) Hummocky interval within a coarsening-up-
ward succession. Episodic interpretation: storm de- References
position below fairweather wave base within a pro-
grading package during a sea level stillstand. Se- Ager, D.V., 1980. The Nature of the Stratigraphic Record. John
quence interpretation: storm deposition in a trans- Wiley, New York, 122 pp.
Ager, D.V., 1993. The New Catastrophism. Cambridge, 23 1 pp.
gressive systems tract.
Aigner, T., 1985. Storm Depositional Systems. Lecture Notes in
(5) Thin marine shelly sandstone abruptly overly- Earth Sciences 3, Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 122 pp.
ing eolian sun&tone. Episodic interpretation: coastal Aigner, T. and Reineck, H.E., 1982. Proximality trends in modem
flooding by storm surge or tsunami. Sequence inter- storm sands from the Helgoland Bight (North Sea) and their
pretation: transgressive flooding by eustatic rise. implications for basin analysis. Senckenb. Mar., 14: 183-215.
Periodicity tends to be a tacit assumption of most Barrell, J., 1917. Rhythms and the measurement of geologic time.
Geol. Sot. Am. Bull., 28: 745-904.
sequence stratigraphy interpretations, and one or Clifton, H.E. (Editor), 1988. Sedimentologic consequences of
more of the Milankovitch cycles is soon invoked as convulsive geologic events. Geol. Sot. Am. Spec. Pap., 229,
the driving control for the inferred sequences. Peri- 157 pp.
odicity, however, is not an inevitable logical corol- Coleman, P.J., 1968. Tsunamis as geologic agents. J. Geol. Sot.
Aust., 15: 267-273.
lary of sequences. Although there are good reasons
Dott, Jr., R.H., 1983. Episodic sedimentation-how normal is
for expecting some periodic phenomena to be average? How rare is rare? Does it matter? J. Sediment.
recorded in the rock record, it is inescapable that Petrol., 53: 5-23.
geologists have an excessive passion for periodic Dott, Jr., R.H., 1988. An episodic view of shallow marine elastic
cycles. This tendency undoubtedly follows from the sedimentation. In: P.L. DeBoer et al. (Editors), Tide-In-
fluenced Sedimentary Environments and Facies. Reidel, Dor-
universal experience of natural rhythms, such as
drecht, pp. 3-12.
diurnal, tidal and seasonal cycles. It also may reflect Dott, Jr., R.H., 1992a. An introduction to the ups and downs of
millennia of influence of the Aristotelian Greek view eustasy. In: R.H. Dott, Jr. (Editor), Eustasy: the Historical Ups
that all of nature is cyclic, but it mostly reflects the and Downs of a Major Geological Concept. Geol. Sot. Am.
human passion for order and simplicity. Moreover, Mem., 180: pp. I-16.
Dott, Jr., R.H., 1992b. T.C. Chamberlin’s hypothesis of dias-
because periodicity provides both order and simplic-
trophic control of worldwide changes of sea level: a precursor
ity, it also resonates nicely with time-honored uni- of sequence stratigraphy. In: R.H. Dott. Jr. (Editor), Eustasy:
formitarianism. The danger is that such subconscious the Historical Ups and Downs of a Major Geological Concept.
predilections may so deceive us that we invent peri- Geol. Sot. Am. Mem., 180: 31-41.
odic order for which there really is no hard evidence. Einsele, G. and Seilacher, A. (Editors), 1982. Cyclic and Event
Stratification. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 536 pp.
Einsele, G., Ricken, W. and Seilacher, A. (Editors), 1991. Cycles
and Events in Stratigraphy. Springer-Verlag. Berlin, 955 pp.
3. Conclusions Fischer, A.G., 1981. Climatic oscillations in the biosphere. In:
Biotic Crises in Ecological and Evolutionary Time. Academic
Although episodic and periodic eustatic explana- Press, New York, pp. 103-131.
Grabau, A.W., 1940. The Rhythm of the Ages. Henri Vetch,
tions of sedimentary phenomena have both received
Peking, 561 pp.
much attention during the past 15 years, there is a Gretener, P.E., 1967. Significance of the rare event in geology.
growing tendency to interpret most stratigraphic pat- Bull. Am. Assoc. Pet. Geol., 51: 2197-2206.
terns in sequence terms with little consideration of Henbest, L.G., 1952. Significance of evolutionary explosions for
alternatives. Because periodicity and eustasy are so diastrophic division of earth history-introduction to the sym-
posium on distribution of evolutionary explosions in geologic
susceptible to circular reasoning, this is a dangerous
time. J. Paleontol., 26: 299318.
trend. It should be incumbent upon all to test any Moore, D., 1959. Role of deltas in the formation of some British
hypothesis of periodic eustatic changes as rigorously Lower Carboniferous cyclothems. J. Geol., 67: 522-539.
as possible (with ever-finer dating, Markov analysis, Sadler, P.M., 1981. Sediment accumulation rates and the com-
R.H. Dott Jr./Sedimentary Geology 104 (1996) 243-247 247

pleteness of the stratigraphic section. J. Geol., 89: 569-584. Sloss, L.L., Krumbein, W.C. and Dapples, E.C., 1949. Integrated
Sadler, P.M., 1993. Time scale dependence of the rates of un- facies analysis. Geol. Sot. Am. Mem., 39: 91- 124.
steady geologic processes. Gulf Coast Section SEPM Founda- Tannehill, I.R., 1969. Hurricanes. Greenwood Press, New York.
tion, 14th Annual Research Conference Proceedings, pp. 22 I- 257 pp.
228. Vail, P.R., Mitchum, Jr., R.M. and Thompson, III, S., 1977.
Schindel, D.E., 1982. Resolution analysis: a new approach to the Seismic stratigraphy and global changes of sea level, Part 4.
gaps in the fossil record. Paleobiology, 5: 340-353. Global cycles of relative changes of sea level. In: C.E. Payton
Simpson, G.G., 1952. Probabilities of dispersal through time. Am. (Editor), Seismic Stratigraphy-Applications to Hydrocarbon
Mus. Nat. Hist. Bull., 99: 163- 176. Deposition. Am. Assoc. Pet. Geol. Mem., 26: 83-98.
Sloss, L.L., 1991. The tectonic factor in sea level change: a Van Andel, Tj.H., 1981. Consider the incompleteness of the
countervailing view. J. Geophys. Res.. 96: 66096617. geological record. Nature, 294: 397-398.