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Research paper

Testing for eustatic sea-level control in the Precambrian
sedimentary record
Andrew D. Miall
Department of Geology, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 3B1
Received 25 February 2004; received in revised form 8 March 2004; accepted 20 March 2004
Stratigraphic successions are deposited under the influence of three primary controls, which tend to vary systematically
through time. These controls are tectonism (basin subsidence and uplift), sea-level change, and sediment supply. The
development of sequence stratigraphy has enabled the introduction of systematic, quantitative methods for the analysis of these
The use of the sequence approach requires the establishment of a regional sequence framework and detailed
chronostratigraphic control. Working with the Phanerozoic record this approach has revealed a variety of sequence types
reflecting long-term tectonostratigraphic processes caused by continental rifting, continental collisions and cratonic dynamic
topography, high-frequency thrust-loading cycles in foreland basins, and high-frequency cycles caused by orbital forcing.
Glacioeustasy (10
-year periodicity) and eustasy driven by changing rates of sea-floor spreading (10
-year periodicity) have
emerged as two significant global processes.
Documenting the sequence record in the Precambrian has proved difficult owing to fragmentary preservation and structural
deformation. Methods of dating are at present not precise enough to permit reliable regional correlation or testing of high-
frequency sequence-generating mechanisms. Some studies of Precambrian sequence architecture have been achieved, but these
indicate tectonic processes acting at a much slower rate than during the Phanerozoic. Further analysis of this problem is
D 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Eustasy; Sea-level change; Precambrian
1. The importance of sequence stratigraphy
Stratigraphic successions are deposited under the
influence of three primary controls, which tend to
vary systematically through time. These controls are
tectonism (basin subsidence and uplift), sea-level
change, and sediment supply. This has been under-
stood in a general way since the work of Charles Lyell
(1830), and was the subject of a remarkable study by
Barrell (1917), which was far ahead of its time (and
was largely forgotten until the ideas were rediscovered
0037-0738/$ - see front matter D 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
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Sedimentary Geology 176 (2005) 9–16
during the last few decades). It was not until the
emergence of the principles of sequence stratigraphy
in the late 1970s that geologists began to be able to
analyze the interacting effects of these variables
systematically and quantitatively.
Sequences are defined as packages of strata
bounded by unconformities or their correlative con-
formities. A succession of sequences results from the
interplay of the three main variables and records a
systematic variation between periods of net sedimen-
tation, when the sequences are deposited, and net
erosion, when the bounding unconformities develop.
Vail et al. (1977) were the first to demonstrate how
this interplay of processes could be interpreted from
sequence architecture, as imaged on reflection seismic
records. Van Wagoner et al. (1990) extended these
techniques to the use of outcrop and drilling data. For
the purpose of quantitative analysis, the space
available for sedimentation, typically the space
between the sea surface and the sea floor, is defined
as accommodation (Jervey, 1988). Standardized
methods have evolved for interpreting sequence
architecture. Thus, systematic changes in sedimentary
facies are used to define systems tracts that indicate
the state and direction of change in accommodation
space for sediments, and which depend on and reflect
the dynamic balance between the three main variables.
The unconformities and their contained sequences
may commonly be traced for significant distances,
through major changes in depositional setting and
across tectonic boundaries. This continuity imparts
significant value to sequences as indicators of regional
geologic change.
2. The basic controls on basin fill
Careful documentation of basin stratigraphies in
the Phanerozoic record has now revealed that most
contain evidence of episodic or regular variations in
two or more of the three main variables. Quantitative
techniques have evolved for deconstructing the con-
tribution each variable makes to the final sedimentary
product. A method termed backstripping, developed
in the 1970s, uses the details of a stratigraphic
succession at a specific location to determine the
details of the local subsidence history (Steckler and
Watts, 1978). Improved understanding of the physics
of basin’s subsidence, and of the importance of such
regional and global processes as intraplate stress,
dynamic topography, the effects of changing sea-floor
spreading patterns on ocean-basin volumes, and
orbital forcing of climate change, has revealed a
complex pattern of basin evolution, the controls on
which may be extracted from careful analysis of
stratigraphic successions (Allen and Allen, 1990;
Miall, 1995, 1997).
For example, it is common on extensional
continental margins to find successions many kilo-
metres thick formed under the influence of steady,
thermally driven subsidence, upon which are super-
imposed the results of transgressions and regressions
over periods of tens of millions of years, reflecting
eustatic sea-level changes driven by varying global
rates of sea-floor spreading. Such variable spreading
rates cause eustatic sea-level change by affecting the
volume of the ocean basins. Episodic rifting epi-
sodes, in response to changes in regional plate
kinematics, commonly cause changes in accommo-
dation that are superimposed on those related to
eustasy. The result is what have been called
tectonostratigraphic sequences and tectonic systems
tracts; these are characteristic of extensional-margin
plate-tectonic settings, and have periodicities in the
-year range. In the case of tectonically active
basins, such as foreland basins, the crust may be
episodically depressed by crustal loading during
contractional events and then uplifted by subaerial
erosion and isostatic rebound of the orogen follow-
ing the cessation of tectonism. The result is to drive
episodic subsidence and uplift of the adjacent basins,
with consequent rise and fall of relative sea level
and, commonly, significant changes in the sediment
supply, reflecting varying erosion rates in the
orogenic sediment source. These cycles may have
durations with widely varying rates (10
Within cratonic interiors, which typically are more
tectonically stable, sedimentary evidence of sea-level
change may reflect long-term epeirogenic move-
ments (10
-year periodicities) driven by mantle
thermal properties (the dynamic topography process),
or the short-term effects of glacioeustasy (10
year periodicities). The products of orbital forcing
(so-called Milankovitch processes) are increasingly
being recognized in those parts of the sedimentary
record lacking evidence of widespread continental
A.D. Miall / Sedimentary Geology 176 (2005) 9–16 10
glaciation, such as most of the Mesozoic. Such
evidence takes the form of sedimentary cyclicity
reflecting rhythmic variations in sediment supply or
organic productivity, driven by climate changes over
-year periodicities. Major glacial episodes are
driven in part by regional tectonism, such as the
widespread uplift accompanying continental rifting
(Eyles, 1993). Cycles of sea-level change under such
controls include those due to this long-term tectonic
uplift, upon which are superimposed those caused by
orbital forcing.
Miall (1997) suggested that the kinds of strati-
graphic variability touched upon here give rise to a
classification into four broad classes of regional to
global stratigraphic cycle (Table 1).
3. Application to the Precambrian record
As discussed elsewhere (e.g., Eriksson et al.,
1998), including some of the papers in this special
issue (Eriksson et al., this volume a, Eriksson et al.,
this volume c; Mazumder, this volume; Long and
Rainbird, this volume), there is ample evidence that
geological processes similar to those in force during
the Phanerozoic also operated during at least part of
the Precambrian. It is now generally believed that
plate-tectonic processes of the type that characterized
the Phanerozoic gradually became dominant as
cratonization was completed in the late Archean
(Eriksson, 1999; Eriksson et al., 1999). Processes of
subsidence and uplift and global tectonic and gla-
cioeustatic control of sea-level change would have
been similar during the Proterozoic to those processes
that acted during the Phanerozoic. The first evidence
of major glaciation is that of the Huronian of southern
Ontario, dated at between about 2.4 and 2.2 Ga, and
another glacial episode accompanied the rifting and
breakup of the supercontinent Rodinia during the late
Proterozoic. A major difference in sedimentary
processes from the Phanerozoic would have been
the control exerted on sediment supply by the
presence of land vegetation on continental sedimen-
tary source areas. This would not have become a
significant process until sometime in the Silurian or
Devonian, when land vegetation is considered to have
become widespread.
4. Unraveling the sedimentary controls
Two main items are required to evaluate the
sedimentary controls in a given succession and
attempt meaningful interpretations of basin fills.
First, sequences must be mapped over a significant
area in order to discriminate between local, regional,
basin-wide and continental or global-scale processes.
It is not sufficient to rely on a single section, such as a
deep borehole, or a generalized basin-fill succession,
or an idealized type section to erect a meaningful
sequence stratigraphy. Too much ambiguity is asso-
ciated with such limited evidence. For example, a
sharp upward transition from a deltaic clastic succes-
sion into a marine shale may indicate a major regional
transgression, but it could simply be local autogenic
Table 1
Stratigraphic cycles and their causes
Sequence type Duration
Other terminology
A. Global supercontinent
200–400 First-order cycle
(Vail et al., 1977)
B. Cycles generated by
continental-scale mantle
thermal processes (dynamic
topography), and by
plate kinematics including:
10–100 Second-order cycle
(Vail et al., 1977),
(Vail et al., 1977),
(Sloss, 1963) 1. Eustatic cycles induced by
volume changes in global
mid-oceanic spreading centres
2. Regional cycles of basement
movement induced by
extensional downwarp and
crustal loading.
C. Regional to local cycles of
basement movement caused
by regional plate kinematics,
including changes in
intraplate-stress regime
0.01–10 Third- to
fifth-order cycles
(Vail et al., 1977)
Third-order cycles
also termed:
(Heckel, 1986),
(Ramsbottom, 1979)
D. Global cycles generated by
orbital forcing, including
productivity cycles, etc.
0.01–2 Fourth- and
fifth-order cycles
(Vail et al., 1977),
Milankovitch cycles,
cyclothem (Wanless
and Weller, 1932),
major and minor
cycles (Heckel,
1986; Miall, 1997).
A.D. Miall / Sedimentary Geology 176 (2005) 9–16 11
shifting of a delta lobe or a ravinement surface
indicating local wave erosion.
Second, because the rates of allogenic processes
are amongst the key diagnostic criteria by which they
may be recognized (Miall, 1995, Table 1; Miall, 1997,
Table 9.1), it is essential that the rates of change in a
succession be determined based on a precise chro-
nostratigraphic control. Chronostratigraphic data are
also essential to demonstrate the correlation of
sequences between areas lacking in good control.
Both these requirements are difficult to satisfy in
most Precambrian successions. Mapping of regional
sequence architectures is commonly prevented by
structural disturbance and/or fragmentary preserva-
tion, which make it very difficult to trace individual
units for significant distances. Even where a large
basin is well preserved, regional correlation may be
rendered ambiguous because of facies changes
within a succession. Reflection-seismic data, which
may be used in many cases for Phanerozoic studies
as a result of petroleum exploration activity, are
typically not available from the Precambrian record
because they have not been explored using this
technique (these rocks are usually regarded as having
little or no petroleum potential). In the Phanerozoic
record, many attempts have been made to correlate
isolated sections by simple pattern-matching, such as
the simple counting of the number of sequences
between widespread stratigraphic markers, but the
results are ambiguous, at best, because multiple
controls may have operated in a basin at any given
time. The resulting sequence architecture may be far
from simple (Miall and Miall, 2001). Ultimately
there is no substitute for a detailed chronostrati-
graphic control.
Even when a well-defined and well-documented
sequence record has been described, it may not be
readily interpretable in terms of the major sedimentary
controls described here. As was first most clearly
pointed out by Burton et al. (1987) and Kendall and
Lerche (1988), determining the absolute amounts of
vertical motion of the crust and of sea level in the
geological past is extremely difficult, because there
are no stationary datums on earth from which
measurements of sea level or crustal elevations can
be made. The earth’s surface, which records the
changing position of shorelines, is itself subject to
vertical movements in response to tectonism, loading
by sediment and water, and changes in the thermal
structure of the mantle (dynamic topography). Essen-
tially three main parameters control local sea-level
change, eustasy, sediment supply, and tectonism.
Unfortunately, calculations of the magnitude of any
one of these three are typically dependent on knowl-
edge of the other two.
The importance of tectonism as a major sedimen-
tary control is usually apparent from the broad
structural characteristics of a basin and the relation-
ships that may be determinable between discrete
structures and stratigraphic events. In a broad sense,
structural and stratigraphic style are determined by
plate-tectonic setting. The descriptions of depositional
systems (their facies assemblages and architecture),
structural geology, petrology, and inferred plate-
tectonic settings have yielded a series of basin
models, for the purpose of interpreting modern and
ancient sedimentary basins (Miall, 2000). Dickinson
(1980, 1981) used the term petrotectonic assemblages
with the same meaning. On a local scale, it may be
possible to correlate stratigraphy directly to structure.
For example, Deramond et al. (1993) showed that
unconformities in the stratigraphy of wedge-top
basins in Pyrenean foreland basins could be correlated
to movements on specific faults in the adjacent fold-
thrust belt. Cross (1986) constructed detailed sub-
sidence curves for the fill of the Western Interior
Foreland basin and suggested that inflection points in
such curves, recording sharply increasing subsidence
rates, indicated episodes of thrust movement.
The demonstration of the reality of eustatic sea-
level change in a basin-fill has been controversial
since the mid-1980s. In their original work on
sequence stratigraphy, Vail et al. (1977) suggested
that such basic seismic-stratigraphic patterns as basin-
margin onlap and offlap could be interpreted in terms
of eustatic sea-level change, and they constructed their
well-known global cycle charts based on a method-
ology of graphic interpretation of onlap and offlap
events in seismic records. Alternative interpretations
began to appear in the early 1980s, and other
criticisms of the methodology in 1985. As shown by
Miall and Miall (2001, 2002), this was more than just
a controversy about interpretation, but reflected
deeper disagreements about the entire body of ideas
around which basin analysis was to be performed.
Miall and Miall (2001) suggested that at present
A.D. Miall / Sedimentary Geology 176 (2005) 9–16 12
geologists tend to align themselves with one or other
of two major paradigms. The first of these, which we
termed the global-eustasy paradigm, holds that
eustatic sea-level change is the predominant sedimen-
tary control, and that it normally overrides the effects
of tectonism. A group of sequence researchers led by
Peter Vail adheres to this paradigm, as evidenced by
the book on European sequence stratigraphy compiled
by de Graciansky et al. (1998). Those who assert that
there are multiple processes generating stratigraphic
sequences (possibly including eustatic processes) are
adherents of what we termed the complexity para-
digm. Followers of this paradigm argue that tests of
the global cycle chart amount to little more than
circular reasoning. Most workers now express doubts
about the veracity of the global-eustasy paradigm, as
discussed in the next section.
5. Testing for eustatic control in the sedimentary
Three kinds of problems are associated with the
hypothesis of eustatic sea-level control.
First, there are doubts about the nature of the
supposed global processes driving eustasy on various
geologic time scales. There are no known processes
acting on the so-called bthird-orderQ time scale of Vail
et al. (1977), which formed the main basis of their first
global cycle charts (Miall, 1995). Third-order pro-
cesses are those having periodicities of 1–10 My.
Glacioeustasy, the process appealed to in order to
explain high-order sequences, requires the presence of
significant continental ice caps, the evidence for
which is lacking through much of geologic time
(Miall and Miall, 2001; see also Eriksson et al., this
volume b).
The second major problem is that sea level may be
affected simultaneously by eustasy and tectonism, and
where the rate and periodicity of vertical motions due
to these processes are similar, no clear, chronostrati-
graphically constant signal of sea-level change will
emerge (Parkinson and Summerhayes, 1985; Burton
et al., 1987; Miall, 1997). Geologic settings where
such overprinting can occur include extensional
continental margins undergoing thermally driven
flexural subsidence overprinted by eustatic sea-level
changes driven by varying sea-floor spreading rates,
and foreland basins simultaneously affected by high-
frequency thrust-loading events and orbital forcing of
climate change. Nevertheless, there are other geologic
scenarios where a clear eustatic signal change might
be expected to be present, such as within cratonic
basins, where tectonism is typically slow (dynamic
topography being the dominant process).
The third problem with the establishment of
eustatic control is that throughout most of the geologic
record its influence cannot be definitively tested. The
principle diagnostic criterion for eustasy is global
synchroneity. The obvious test of its presence is
therefore to seek chronostratigraphic confirmation of
the contemporaneity of sequence boundaries in widely
dispersed locations. Unique events, such as the
terminal-Cretaceous extinction event, carry their
own signature, but most sequence boundaries are
not distinctive in this way. Given a succession of
sequences in a sedimentary basin, the only way to
demonstrate that any of the sequence boundaries
reflect global eustatic control is to demonstrate which
of them can be matched by sequences in other,
tectonically unrelated basins elsewhere in the world.
Unfortunately, this is normally impossible. The geo-
logic time scale contains residual errors that preclude
chronostratigraphic correlation with the precision
required for such testing, except for the last few
million years of geologic history (Miall, 1997). In
most cases, the temporal spacing of sequence boun-
daries is comparable to, or less than, the potential
error associated with chronostratigraphic correlation
(Ricken, 1991; see Fig. 1). Sequence boundaries in
new, test locations, cannot therefore be rigorously
matched to those in a standard succession.
The farther back we go in geologic time the more
acute becomes the third problem, the one of global
correlation. For the last five million years of geologic
time a very precise time scale is now available, based
on cyclostratigraphy, which is a method whereby
conventional chronostratigraphic data (biostratigra-
phy, magnetostratigraphy, radiometric dates) are tuned
using the sedimentary signatures of orbital forcing
(Hilgen, 1991; Berggren et al., 1995). Errors asso-
ciated with this time scale are in the range of a few
thousands to tens of thousands of years. For most of
the remainder of the Phanerozoic, errors are typically
in the F2% range, e.g., F2 My at 100 Ma (Harland et
al., 1990). Correlation of sequences generated by
A.D. Miall / Sedimentary Geology 176 (2005) 9–16 13
orbital forcing is therefore not possible. However, a
F2% precision permits the correlation of sequences
having periodicities in the 10
-year time scale
throughout most of the Phanerozoic. This includes
the so-called bSloss-type sequencesQ (Miall, 1997;
after Sloss, 1963, 1972), which are now interpreted to
have been generated, in part, by eustasy driven by
changing rates of sea-floor spreading. Most workers
now agree that this is the limit to which eustatic sea-
level control may be tested in the Phanerozoic record,
and support for the Vail/Exxon concept of a global
cycle chart has virtually disappeared (e.g., Dewey and
Pitman, 1998; Vincent et al., 1998; Hallam, 1998;
Nichols, 1999; Torrens, 2002).
6. The Precambrian record
Chronostratigraphic control in the Precambrian
sedimentary record is almost entirely dependent on
radiometric dating. Even in the Phanerozoic record,
radiometric dating is typically quite inadequate to
Fig. 1. The problem of correlating sequences where event spacing is
less than the standard error associated with event dating. The
stratigraphic sections are drawn using a time ordinate. The potential
error in the ages of successive sequence boundaries overlaps, which
means that correlations attempted from new sequence boundaries
(the dashed lines with question marks) cannot be definitive. A
hypothetical example from the early Cenozoic is shown, where
errors of F1 my may be expected. Much larger error ranges are
associated with older successions.
Fig. 2. Using radiometric ages to date events by the bbracketingQ method. (A) The basis of the method. In this idealized section, 118 m of beds
accumulated in (56.9–55.5=) 1.4 my. The average sedimentation rate is therefore 118/1.4 m/my=84 m/my. The sequence boundary is 30.3 m
above the lower ash bed. Assuming a constant sedimentation rate and no hiatuses, 30.3 m of beds accumulate in 30.3/84=0.36 my. Therefore the
age of this sequence boundary is 56.9–0.36=56.54 Ma. (B) The problems with the method are the assumption of continuous sedimentation and
the assumption of constant sedimentation rate. Typically, neither assumption is correct.
A.D. Miall / Sedimentary Geology 176 (2005) 9–16 14
provide precise ages for stratigraphic events, because
it is extremely rare to be able to date such events
directly. Typically, it is necessary to extrapolate ages
from bracketing events, a procedure that is fraught
with potential error (Fig. 2). Radiometric ages may be
checked and corrected against biostratigraphic and
other evidence, where such data are available, but this
is not possible in the Precambrian record.
Dating and correlation of the Precambrian
sequence record is therefore only as precise as the
radiometric ages that are available for each succes-
sion. Bearing in mind the typical error ranges in
Precambrian ages (commonly in the 10
range), plus the problems in using such age data that
are illustrated in Fig. 2, it should be apparent that only
the very crudest comparisons may be drawn between
the sequence successions in different Precambrian
provinces. Even the testing of suites of global Sloss-
type cycles would currently be beyond our technical
The most recent attempt to examine global
sequence-stratigraphic processes in the Precambrian
record is that by Catuneanu and Eriksson (1999). This
report summarizes the evidence for bfirst-orderQ cycles
related to the creation and breakup of supercontinents,
which are known to have very long-term effects on
sea levels (e.g., Worsley et al., 1984). Their other
major suggestion is the presence of a series of
bsecond-orderQ cycles in the stratigraphic record of
the Kaapvaal craton, South Africa (see also, Eriksson
et al., this volume c). However, both the first- and
second-order cycles are of much longer duration than
is the case for such cycles in the Phanerozoic record.
The supposed first-order Transvaal Supergroup cycle
is 650 my in duration (longer than the entire
Phanerozoic), and the second-order cycles average
130 my. They are, therefore, not bsecond-orderQ cycles
in the sense that is now generally used for Phaner-
ozoic sequences. Most workers now agree that such
cycles are caused by regional tectonic processes, such
as rifting, flexural subsidence, or terrane-collision
events. The cycles of relative sea-level change
generated by such events are typically completed
within a few tens of millions of years. It is, therefore,
unclear what caused the cycles in the Transvaal
Supergroup. Focusing attention on this distinctive
sequence record may help to generate new ideas about
Precambrian sedimentary and tectonic processes. But
bglobal cycle chartsQ are not to be anticipated from the
Precambrian record any time soon.
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