You are on page 1of 5

Paleocurrents

Why measure paleocurrent directions?


Paleocurrent measurements can provide valuable information on ancient flow conditions, which can often shed light on paleogeography. For example, paleocurrent data can
reveal how sediment was dispersed through a basin or the direction of depositional dip.
In marine settings, paleocurrent indicators are often the start for reconstructing paleoceanography.

Features that give paleocurrent directions


Linear structures are easy features on which to measure paleocurrent azimuths. Such features include groove marks, gutter casts, parting lineation, and channels. In some cases,
they cannot give the direction of the current, only the trend. For example, a groove mark
running from northwest to southeast typically cannot be used to tell whether the current
originated from the northwest or the southeast. On contrast, flute marks offer unambiguous paleocurrent directions because their blunt noses point upstream.
Cross-stratification is one of the most abundant paleocurrent indicators. However, threedimensional exposures are necessary to obtain true dip directions, and incomplete exposure will give erroneous current directions. Foreset laminae dip in the downstream direction, but these dip directions vary more widely for trough cross-sets. In trough crosssets, the azimuth of trough axes are reliable paleocurrent indicators because they are
aligned parallel to flow.
Currents commonly orient fossils, although in many cases experimental work is needed
to understand how a current will orient a particular shape of bioclast. Elongated fossils
that are not noticeably wider at one end (such as a straight log or orthoconic nautiloid)
commonly align parallel to unidirectional currents and perpendicular to waves. Conical
shells and elongate fossils that are larger or heavier at one end (such as a log with attached roots) are typically anchored at the larger end, while the lighter end rotates to
point downstream. In waves, conical forms align with their axes perpendicular to the
flow, that is, parallel to wave ripple crests. Where fossils are aligned, a quick sketch
should be made showing their alignment and the azimuth of the preferred orientation
should be recorded.
The imbrication or stacking of flat pebbles and intraclasts can indicate current direction,
but care must be taken to determine whether the clasts are part of a foreset lamina.
Where clasts are contained within foresets, they dip downstream but at a shallower angle
than the foreset laminae. Where clasts are not contained within foreset laminae, they dip
preferentially upstream.

Correction to paleocurrent measurements


In flat-lying strata and in strata inclined less than approximately 30, the azimuth of the
paleocurrent indicator gives the true paleocurrent direction. The azimuth will not give a

Sedimentary Geology

Paleocurrents

true paleocurrent direction if the bed is tilted more than 30, if the bed is part of a fold
with an inclined axis, or if the bed has been axially compressed. In these situations, a
separate correction must be made to obtain true paleocurrent directions. Both stereographic and trigonometric corrections are available; these corrections are described in
most structural geology texts.

Presentation of data
When paleocurrent data are scarce, individual measurements may be plotted as vectors
next to a measured stratigraphic section. These are typically plotted as arrows, with up
indicating north and right indicating east. In general, larger structures such as large foresets and channel directions better reflect large-scale fluid flow, whereas smaller structures
record more localized flow directions that may deviate substantially from overall flow
direction.
When paleocurrent data are abundant, they are best
shown on a rose diagram, a type of 360 histogram
or frequency distribution. Rose diagrams can plot
vectors for individual observations, but more
commonly they group observations into bins ranging from 10 to 30. Smaller bins allow more finer
details to be recognized, but may also mask larger
trends. Here is an example of a rose diagram
shown below, with data grouped into 20 increments.
The concentric rings can either be in absolute
numbers of observations or in percentage of total
observations. Using percentages is better because it
makes it easier to compare diagrams from data sets
that have greatly different sample sizes. Note that
the total number of observations is indicated adjacent to the rose diagram with standard
notation, such as n=83, as shown here.
Rose diagrams typically plot the direction of the current, which in some cases may lie at
some angle to the structure measured. For instance, the direction of a reversing current
lies at 90 to the trend of symmetrical ripple crests, so it is more informative to plot the
current direction rather than the trend of the ripple crests.

Interpretation
Once paleocurrent indicators are measured, plotted, and statistically treated, the real
work begins in trying to understand what the currents say about the original flow conditions. Natural fluid flows are variable at many length and time scales. This variation is
crudely preserved in the rock record in the form of paleocurrent indicators. Thus, paleocurrent indicators are variable because flow conditions change through space and time.
Sedimentary Geology

Paleocurrents

Ideally, we would like to map the changes in both space and time, but this requires very
detailed correlations that are difficult at best. More commonly, we are forced to pool
data formed at different times in different places. Interpretations should consider how
the data have been pooled. For example, one might pool all data from a particular sedimentary structure from a particular facies, which will describe flow at a particular spatial
scale in one environment. Lumping different types of sedimentary structures lumps different flow conditions, and lumping different sedimentary environments may lump different types of flow.
Several workers have described a hierarchy of paleocurrent variability. In general, ripples
and structures tend to have more variable paleocurrent azimuths than dunes and large
structures. For example, the channel direction in a river commonly has much less variability than the dip directions of ripple foresets. Smaller structures are more variable because they are a response to not only the overall flow of the system, but also the localized flow in response to bedforms and other obstacles in the flow. When interpreting
paleocurrent data, the relationship between the scale of the feature and what it indicates
must be continually kept in mind.

Optional reading
Cooper, M. A., and Marshall, J. D., 1981, Orient: a computer program for the resolution
and rotation of paleocurrent data: Computers and Geosciences, v. 7, p. 153-165.
Curray, J. R., 1956, The analysis of two-dimensional orientation data: Journal of Geology, v. 64, p. 117-131.
Potter, P. E., and Pettijohn, F. J., 1977, Paleocurrents and basin analysis: Berlin, SpringerVerlag, 425 p.

What to do
In this lab, you are given four sets of paleocurrent azimuths, each from a different facies
that you will see in the next lab. For each set of paleocurrent data, prepare a rose diagram. You will produce four rose diagrams in all.
Each rose diagram should be scaled in terms of percentage. The rings on the rose diagrams should be integer numbers, not fractions. For example, having each ring represent
2%, 5%, or 10% would make good sense, but rings of 5.7% or 2.18% would not. Ideally,
the longest spoke on each diagram should come close to the outer ring; given that, the
scales may differ among the rose diagrams.
Add the sample size (e.g., n=23) next to each rose diagram.
For each set of paleocurrent data, write a 3-5 sentence paragraph describing the flow
pattern in terms of overall direction and spread or scatter. Given what you know about
the sedimentary structure on which the rose diagram is based, interpret what the results
say about the type, direction, and consistency of flow. Speculate on what environments
Sedimentary Geology

Paleocurrents

might have this type of flow, but bear in mind that you may change your interpretations
when you see the next lab exercise, which adds substantially more data.
Data Set 1
These data are derived from Facies A and are measurements of foresets of large-scale
trough cross stratification.
103 151 148 119 134 101 152 119 130 87 99 116 92 71 142 106 135 138 65 115 107
Data Set 2
These data come from the lower portions of Facies B and are measurements of foresets
of large-scale trough cross stratification.
76 72 120 307 316 139 4 320 135 41 283 89 137 305 155 253 121 243 315 12 121 155
117 41 131 115 121 117 96 134 58 315 107 128
Data Set 3
These data are derived from the lower portions of Facies D, and they are measurements
of prod marks.
306 285 135 330 133 298 318 293 103 301 310 130 131 101 311 159 155 309 316 128
127 150 120 318 127 312 316 151 140 115 122 328 333 316 305 303 138 284 308 307
301 307 129 315 115 129 334 309 147 131 326 308

Sedimentary Geology

Paleocurrents

Blank rose diagram


This is a blank rose diagram that you can use as a template for your plotting.

Sedimentary Geology