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The Permian through Jurassic strata of the Colorado Plateau area of southeastern Utah demonstrate the principles of stratigraphy. SEUtahStrat.JPG
The Permian through Jurassic strata of the Colorado Plateau area of southeastern Utah demonstrate the principles of stratigraphy.

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


Historical development

Engraving from William Smith's monograph on identifying strata based on fossils Smith fossils1.jpg
Engraving from William Smith's monograph on identifying strata based on fossils

Catholic priest Nicholas Steno established the theoretical basis for stratigraphy when he introduced the law of superposition, the principle of original horizontality and the principle of lateral continuity in a 1669 work on the fossilization of organic remains in layers of sediment.

The first practical large-scale application of stratigraphy was by William Smith in the 1790s and early 19th century. Known as the "Father of English geology", [1] Smith recognized the significance of strata or rock layering and the importance of fossil markers for correlating strata; he created the first geologic map of England. Other influential applications of stratigraphy in the early 19th century were by Georges Cuvier and Alexandre Brongniart, who studied the geology of the region around Paris.

Strata in Cafayate (Argentina) Quebrada de Cafayate, Salta (Argentina).jpg
Strata in Cafayate (Argentina)


Chalk layers in Cyprus, showing sedimentary layering Geology of Cyprus-Chalk.jpg
Chalk layers in Cyprus, showing sedimentary layering

Variation in rock units, most obviously displayed as visible layering, is due to physical contrasts in rock type (lithology). This variation can occur vertically as layering (bedding), or laterally, and reflects changes in environments of deposition (known as facies change). These variations provide a lithostratigraphy or lithologic stratigraphy of the rock unit. Key concepts in stratigraphy involve understanding how certain geometric relationships between rock layers arise and what these geometries imply about their original depositional environment. The basic concept in stratigraphy, called the law of superposition, states: in an undeformed stratigraphic sequence, the oldest strata occur at the base of the sequence.

Chemostratigraphy studies the changes in the relative proportions of trace elements and isotopes within and between lithologic units. Carbon and oxygen isotope ratios vary with time, and researchers can use those to map subtle changes that occurred in the paleoenvironment. This has led to the specialized field of isotopic stratigraphy.

Cyclostratigraphy documents the often cyclic changes in the relative proportions of minerals (particularly carbonates), grain size, thickness of sediment layers (varves) and fossil diversity with time, related to seasonal or longer term changes in palaeoclimates.


Biostratigraphy or paleontologic stratigraphy is based on fossil evidence in the rock layers. Strata from widespread locations containing the same fossil fauna and flora are said to be correlatable in time. Biologic stratigraphy was based on William Smith's principle of faunal succession, which predated, and was one of the first and most powerful lines of evidence for, biological evolution. It provides strong evidence for the formation (speciation) and extinction of species. The geologic time scale was developed during the 19th century, based on the evidence of biologic stratigraphy and faunal succession. This timescale remained a relative scale until the development of radiometric dating, which gave it and the stratigraphy it was based on an absolute time framework, leading to the development of chronostratigraphy.

One important development is the Vail curve, which attempts to define a global historical sea-level curve according to inferences from worldwide stratigraphic patterns. Stratigraphy is also commonly used to delineate the nature and extent of hydrocarbon-bearing reservoir rocks, seals, and traps of petroleum geology.


Chronostratigraphy is the branch of stratigraphy that places an absolute age, rather than a relative age on rock strata. The branch is concerned with deriving geochronological data for rock units, both directly and inferentially, so that a sequence of time-relative events that created the rocks formation can be derived. The ultimate aim of chronostratigraphy is to place dates on the sequence of deposition of all rocks within a geological region, and then to every region, and by extension to provide an entire geologic record of the Earth.

A gap or missing strata in the geological record of an area is called a stratigraphic hiatus. This may be the result of a halt in the deposition of sediment. Alternatively, the gap may be due to removal by erosion, in which case it may be called a stratigraphic vacuity. [2] [3] It is called a hiatus because deposition was on hold for a period of time. [4] A physical gap may represent both a period of non-deposition and a period of erosion. [3] A geologic fault may cause the appearance of a hiatus. [5]


Example of magnetostratigraphy. Magnetic stripes are the result of reversals of the Earth's magnetic poles and seafloor spreading. New oceanic crust is magnetized as it forms and then it moves away from the midocean ridge in both directions. Oceanic.Stripe.Magnetic.Anomalies.Scheme.svg
Example of magnetostratigraphy. Magnetic stripes are the result of reversals of the Earth's magnetic poles and seafloor spreading. New oceanic crust is magnetized as it forms and then it moves away from the midocean ridge in both directions.

Magnetostratigraphy is a chronostratigraphic technique used to date sedimentary and volcanic sequences. The method works by collecting oriented samples at measured intervals throughout a section. The samples are analyzed to determine their detrital remanent magnetism (DRM), that is, the polarity of Earth's magnetic field at the time a stratum was deposited. For sedimentary rocks this is possible because, as they fall through the water column, very fine-grained magnetic minerals (< 17  μm) behave like tiny compasses, orienting themselves with Earth's magnetic field. Upon burial, that orientation is preserved. For volcanic rocks, magnetic minerals, which form in the melt, orient themselves with the ambient magnetic field, and are fixed in place upon crystallization of the lava.

Oriented paleomagnetic core samples are collected in the field; mudstones, siltstones, and very fine-grained sandstones are the preferred lithologies because the magnetic grains are finer and more likely to orient with the ambient field during deposition. If the ancient magnetic field were oriented similar to today's field (North Magnetic Pole near the North Rotational Pole), the strata would retain a normal polarity. If the data indicate that the North Magnetic Pole were near the South Rotational Pole, the strata would exhibit reversed polarity.

Results of the individual samples are analyzed by removing the natural remanent magnetization (NRM) to reveal the DRM. Following statistical analysis, the results are used to generate a local magnetostratigraphic column that can then be compared against the Global Magnetic Polarity Time Scale.

This technique is used to date sequences that generally lack fossils or interbedded igneous rocks. The continuous nature of the sampling means that it is also a powerful technique for the estimation of sediment-accumulation rates.

See also

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In chronostratigraphy, a stage is a succession of rock strata laid down in a single age on the geologic timescale, which usually represents millions of years of deposition. A given stage of rock and the corresponding age of time will by convention have the same name, and the same boundaries.

Geology scientific study of the composition, structure, physical properties, and history of Earths components, and the processes by which they are shaped.

Geology is an Earth science concerned with the solid Earth, the rocks of which it is composed, and the processes by which they change over time. Geology can also include the study of the solid features of any terrestrial planet or natural satellite such as Mars or the Moon. Modern geology significantly overlaps all other Earth sciences, including hydrology and the atmospheric sciences, and so is treated as one major aspect of integrated Earth system science and planetary science.

Sedimentary rock Rock formed by the deposition and subsequent cementation of material

Sedimentary rocks are types of rock that are formed by the accumulation or deposition of small particles and subsequent cementation of mineral or organic particles on the floor of oceans or other bodies of water at the Earth's surface. Sedimentation is the collective name for processes that cause these particles to settle in place. The particles that form a sedimentary rock are called sediment, and may be composed of geological detritus (minerals) or biological detritus. Before being deposited, the geological detritus was formed by weathering and erosion from the source area, and then transported to the place of deposition by water, wind, ice, mass movement or glaciers, which are called agents of denudation. Biological detritus was formed by bodies and parts of dead aquatic organisms, as well as their fecal mass, suspended in water and slowly piling up on the floor of water bodies. Sedimentation may also occur as dissolved minerals precipitate from water solution.

Sedimentology encompasses the study of modern sediments such as sand, silt, and clay, and the processes that result in their formation, transport, deposition and diagenesis. Sedimentologists apply their understanding of modern processes to interpret geologic history through observations of sedimentary rocks and sedimentary structures.

Geochronology Science of determining the age of rocks, sediments and fossils

Geochronology is the science of determining the age of rocks, fossils, and sediments using signatures inherent in the rocks themselves. Absolute geochronology can be accomplished through radioactive isotopes, whereas relative geochronology is provided by tools such as palaeomagnetism and stable isotope ratios. By combining multiple geochronological indicators the precision of the recovered age can be improved.

Biostratigraphy study of relative ages of rock strata using fossils

Biostratigraphy is the branch of stratigraphy which focuses on correlating and assigning relative ages of rock strata by using the fossil assemblages contained within them. The primary objective of biostratigraphy is correlation, demonstrating that a particular horizon in one geological section represents the same period of time as another horizon at a different section. Fossils within these strata are useful because sediments of the same age can look completely different, due to local variations in the sedimentary environment. For example, one section might have been made up of clays and marls, while another has more chalky limestones. However, if the fossil species recorded are similar, the two sediments are likely to have been laid down around the same time. Ideally these fossil are used to help identify biozones, as they make up the basic biostratigraphy units, and define geological time periods based upon the fossil species found within each section.

Paleomagnetism Study of Earths magnetic field in past

Paleomagnetism is the study of the record of the Earth's magnetic field in rocks, sediment, or archeological materials. Magnetic minerals in rocks can lock-in a record of the direction and intensity of the magnetic field when they form. This record provides information on the past behavior of Earth's magnetic field and the past location of tectonic plates. The record of geomagnetic reversals preserved in volcanic and sedimentary rock sequences (magnetostratigraphy) provides a time-scale that is used as a geochronologic tool. Geophysicists who specialize in paleomagnetism are called paleomagnetists.

Geological formation The fundamental unit of lithostratigraphy

A geological formation, or formation, is a body of rock having a consistent set of physical characteristics (lithology) that distinguish it from adjacent bodies of rock, and which occupies a particular position in the layers of rock exposed in a geographical region. It is the fundamental unit of lithostratigraphy, the study of strata or rock layers.

Facies body of rock with specified characteristics, smallest unit in geology

In geology, a facies is a body of rock with specified characteristics, which can be any observable attribute of rocks, and the changes that may occur in those attributes over a geographic area. It is the sum total characteristics of a rock including its chemical, physical, and biological features that distinguishes it from adjacent rock.

A stratigraphic unit is a volume of rock of identifiable origin and relative age range that is defined by the distinctive and dominant, easily mapped and recognizable petrographic, lithologic or paleontologic features (facies) that characterize it.

Lithostratigraphy method of establishing stratigraphical units

Lithostratigraphy is a sub-discipline of stratigraphy, the geological science associated with the study of strata or rock layers. Major focuses include geochronology, comparative geology, and petrology. In general a stratum will be primarily igneous or sedimentary relating to how the rock was formed.

Relative dating determining the relative order of past events

Relative dating is the science of determining the relative order of past events, without necessarily determining their absolute age. In geology, rock or superficial deposits, fossils and lithologies can be used to correlate one stratigraphic column with another. Prior to the discovery of radiometric dating in the early 20th century, which provided a means of absolute dating, archaeologists and geologists used relative dating to determine ages of materials. Though relative dating can only determine the sequential order in which a series of events occurred, not when they occurred, it remains a useful technique. Relative dating by biostratigraphy is the preferred method in paleontology and is, in some respects, more accurate. The Law of Superposition, which states that older layers will be deeper in a site than more recent layers, was the summary outcome of 'relative dating' as observed in geology from the 17th century to the early 20th century.

Chronostratigraphy is the branch of stratigraphy that studies the age of rock strata in relation to time.

Chemostratigraphy, or chemical stratigraphy, is the study of the chemical variations within sedimentary sequences to determine stratigraphic relationships. The field is relatively young, having only come into common usage in the early 1980s, but the basic idea of chemostratigraphy is nearly as old as stratigraphy itself: distinct chemical signatures can be as useful as distinct fossil assemblages or distinct lithographies in establishing stratigraphic relationships between different rock layers.

Eonothem chronostratigraphic unit representing the totality of rock strata laid down during a certain eon of the geologic time scale

In stratigraphy and geology, an eonothem is the totality of rock strata laid down in the stratigraphic record deposited during a certain eon of the continuous geologic timescale. The eonothem is not to be confused with the eon itself, which is a corresponding division of geologic time spanning a specific amount of years, during which rocks were formed that are classified within the eonothem. Eonothems have the same names as their corresponding eons, which means during the history of the Earth only four eonothems were formed. Oldest to newest these are the Hadean, Archean, Proterozoic, and Phanerozoic. A rock stratum, fossil or feature present in the "upper Phanerozoic" eonothem would therefore have originated within the "later Phanerozoic" eon. In practice, the rock column is discontinuous:

Technically, a complete geologic record doesn't occur anywhere. For such a record to develop would require the area to have been receiving sedimentary deposits continually ever since the origin of the earth. Nowhere is such a situation known to exist. If it did exist, we could not effectively look at the strata because they would still be buried, and modern strata would continue to be deposited on top of them. The earth's surface has been far too dynamic to allow that to occur anywhere. No area has been in such a static condition throughout the earth's long history. Areas that have had sediment deposited on them at one time are later uplifted and eroded. In some places this has occurred many times. There is ample evidence to prove such a sequence of events.

Magnetostratigraphy is a geophysical correlation technique used to date sedimentary and volcanic sequences. The method works by collecting oriented samples at measured intervals throughout the section. The samples are analyzed to determine their characteristic remanent magnetization (ChRM), that is, the polarity of Earth's magnetic field at the time a stratum was deposited. This is possible because volcanic flows acquire a thermoremanent magnetization and sediments acquire a depositional remanent magnetization, both of which reflect the direction of the Earth's field at the time of formation. This technique is typically used to date sequences that generally lack fossils or interbedded igneous rock.

Geologic record

The geologic record in stratigraphy, paleontology and other natural sciences refers to the entirety of the layers of rock strata. That is, deposits laid down by volcanism or by deposition of sediment derived from weathering detritus. This includes all its fossil content and the information it yields about the history of the Earth: its past climate, geography, geology and the evolution of life on its surface. According to the law of superposition, sedimentary and volcanic rock layers are deposited on top of each other. They harden over time to become a solidified (competent) rock column, that may be intruded by igneous rocks and disrupted by tectonic events.

Stratigraphic column

A stratigraphic column is a representation used in geology and its subfield of stratigraphy to describe the vertical location of rock units in a particular area. A typical stratigraphic column shows a sequence of sedimentary rocks, with the oldest rocks on the bottom and the youngest on top.

Marker horizon Stratigraphic units used to correlate the age of strata in rocks

Marker horizons, chronohorizons, key beds or marker beds are stratigraphic units of the same age and of such distinctive composition and appearance, that, despite their presence in separate geographic locations, there is no doubt about their being of equivalent age (isochronous) and of common origin. Such clear markers facilitate the correlation of strata, and used in conjunction with fossil floral and faunal assemblages and paleomagnetism, permit the mapping of land masses and bodies of water throughout the history of the earth. They usually consist of a relatively thin layer of sedimentary rock that is readily recognized on the basis of either its distinct physical characteristics or fossil content and can be mapped over a very large geographic area. As a result, a key bed is useful for correlating sequences of sedimentary rocks over a large area. Typically, key beds were created as the result of either instantaneous events or very short episodes of the widespread deposition of a specific types of sediment. As the result, key beds often can be used for both mapping and correlating sedimentary rocks and dating them. Volcanic ash beds and impact spherule beds, and specific megaturbidites are types of key beds created by instantaneous events. The widespread accumulation of distinctive sediments over a geologically short period of time have created key beds in the form of peat beds, coal beds, shell beds, marine bands, black shales in cyclothems, and oil shales. A well-known example of a key bed is the global layer of iridium-rich impact ejecta that marks the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary.

Geological perspective correlation is a theory in geology describing geometrical regularities in the layering of sediments. Seventy percent of the Earth's surface are occupied by sedimentary basins – volumes consisted of sediments accumulated during million years, and alternated by long interruptions in sedimentation (hiatuses). The most noticeable feature of the rocks, which filled the basins, is layering (stratification). Stratigraphy is a part of Geology that investigates the phenomenon of layering. It describes the sequence of layers in the basin as consisted of stratigraphic units. Units are defined on the basis of their lithology and have no clear definition. Geological Perspective Correlation (GPC) is a theory that divided the geological cross-section in units according strong mathematical rule: all borders of layers in this unit obey the law of perspective geometry.
Sedimentation layers are mainly created in shallow waters of oceans, seas, and lakes. As new layers are deposited the old ones are sinking deeper due to the weight of accumulating sediments. The content of sedimentary layers, their order in the sequence, and geometrical characteristics keep records of the history of the Earth, of past climate, sea-level and environment Most knowledge about the sedimentary basins came from exploration drilling when searching for oil and gas. The essential feature of this information is that each layer is penetrated by the wells in a number of scattered locations. This raises the problem of identifying each layer in all wells – the geological correlation problem The identification is based on comparison of 1) physical and mineralogical characteristics of the particular layer (lithostratigraphy), or 2) petrified remnants in this layer (biostratigraphy). The similarity of layers is decreasing as the distance between the cross-sections increases that leads to ambiguity of the correlation scheme that indicates which layers penetrated at different locations belong to the same body. To improve the results geologists take in consideration the spatial relations between layers, which restricted the number of acceptable correlations. The first restriction was formulated in XVII century: the sequence of layers is the same in any cross-section. The second one was discovered by Haites in 1963: In an undisturbed sequence of layers (strata) the thicknesses of any layer observed in two different locations obey the law of perspective geometry, i.e the perspective ratio K = H1/H2 is the same for all layers in this succession. This theory attracted attention around the world., and particularly in Russia The theory is also a basis of the method of graphical correlation in biostratigraphy widely used in oil and coal industries.


  1. Davies G.L.H. (2007). Whatever is Under the Earth the Geological Society of London 1807-2007. London: Geological Society. p. 78. ISBN   9781862392144.
  2. "SEPM Strata".
  3. 1 2 Martinsen, O. J. et al. (1999) "Cenozoic development of the Norwegian margin 6064N: sequences and sedimentary response to variable basin physiography and tectonic setting" pp. 293304 In Fleet, A. J. and Boldy, S. A. R. (editors) (1999) Petroleum Geology of Northwest Europe Geological Society, London, page 295, ISBN   978-1-86239-039-3
  4. Kearey, Philip (2001). Dictionary of Geology (2nd ed.) London, New York, etc.: Penguin Reference, London, p. 123. ISBN   978-0-14-051494-0.
  5. Chapman, Richard E. (1983) Petroleum Geology Elsevier Scientific, Amsterdam, page 33, ISBN   978-0-444-42165-4

Further reading