Applications of lithostratigraphy

Lithostratigraphy and geological maps

Lithostratigraphy and geological maps as Part of the definition of a formation is that it should be a ‘mappable unit’, and in practice this usually means that the unit can be represented on a map of a scale of 1:50,000, or 1:100,000. Maps at this scale therefore show the distribution of formations and may also show where members and named beds occur. The stratigraphic order and, where appropriate, lateral relationships between the different lithostratigraphic units are normally shown in a stratigraphic key at the side of the map. In regions of metamorphic, intrusive igneous and highly deformed rocks the mapped units are lithodemes. There are no established rules for the colours used for different lithostratigraphic and lithodemic units on these maps, but each national geological survey usually has its own scheme. Geological maps that cover larger areas, such as a whole country or a continent, are different: they usually show the distribution of rocks in terms of chronostratigraphic units, that is, on the basis of their age, not lithology.

Lithostratigraphy and environments

It is clear from the earlier chapters on the processes and products of sedimentation that the environment of deposition has a fundamental control on the lithological characteristics of a rock unit. A formation, defined by its lithological characteristics, is therefore likely to be composed of strata deposited in a particular sedimentary environment. This has two important consequences for any correlation of formations in any chronostratigraphic (time) framework. First, in any modern environment it is obvious that fluvial sedimentation can be occurring on land at the same time as deposition is happening on a beach, on a shelf and in deeper water. In each environment the characteristics of the sediments will be different and hence they would be considered to be different formations if they are preserved as sedimentary rocks. It inevitably follows that formations have a limited lateral extent, determined by the area of the depositional environment in which they formed and that two or more different formations can be deposited at the same time. Second, depositional environments do not remain fixed in position through time. Consider a coastline where a sandy beach (foreshore) lies between a vegetated coastal plain and a shoreface succession of mudstones coarsening up to sandstones. The foreshore is a spatially restricted depositional environment: it may extend for long distances along a coast, but seawards it passes into the shallow marine, shoreface environment and landwards into continental conditions. The width of deposit produced in a beach and foreshore environment may therefore be only a few tens or hundreds of metres. However, a foreshore deposit will end up covering a much larger area if there is a gradual rise or fall of sea level relative to the land. If sea level slowly rises the shoreline will move landwards and through time the place where sands are being deposited on a beach would have moved several hundreds of metres. These depositional environments (the coastal plain, the sandy foreshore and the shoreface) will each have distinct lithological characteristics that would allow them to be distinguished as mappable formations. The foreshore deposits could therefore constitute a formation, but it is also clear that the beach deposits were formed earlier in one place (at the seaward extent) than another (at the landward extent). The same would be true of formations representing the deposits of the coastal plain and shoreface environments: through time the positions of the depositional environments migrate in space. From this example, it is evident that the body of rock that constitutes a formation would be diachronous and both the upper and lower boundaries of the formation are diachronous surfaces. There is also a relationship between environments of deposition and the hierarchy of lithostratigraphic units. In the case of a desert environment there may be three main types of deposits: aeolian sands, alluvial fan gravels and muddy evaporites deposited in an ephemeral lake. Each type of deposit would have distinctive lithological characteristics that would allow them to be distinguished as three separate formations, but the association of the three could usefully be placed into a group. A distinct change in environment, caused, perhaps, by sealevel rise and marine flooding of the desert area, would lead to a different association of deposits, which in lithostratigraphic terms would form a separate group. Subdivision of the formations formed in this desert environment may be possible if scree deposits around the edge of the basin occur as small patches amongst the other facies. When lithified the scree would form a sedimentary breccia, recognisable as a separate member within the other formations, but not sufficiently widespread to be considered a separate formation.

Lithostratigraphy and correlation

Correlation in stratigraphy is usually concerned with considering rocks in a temporal framework, that is, we want to know the time relationships between different rock units – which ones are older, which are younger and which are the same age. Correlation on the basis of lithostratigraphy alone is difficult because, as discussed in the previous section, lithostratigraphic units are likely to be diachronous. In the example of the lithofacies deposited in a beach environment during a period of rising sea level the lithofacies has different ages in different places. Therefore the upper and lower boundaries of this lithofacies will cross time-lines (imaginary lines drawn across and between bodies of rock which represent a moment in time). If we can draw a time-line across our rock units, or, more usefully, a time-plane through an area of different strata, we would be able to reconstruct the distribution of palaeoenvironments at that time across that area. To carry out this exercise of making a palaeogeographic reconstruction we need to have some means of chronostratigraphic correlation, a means of determining the relative age of rock units which is not dependent on their lithostratigraphic characteristics. Radiometric dating techniques provide an absolute time scale but are not easy to apply because only certain rock types can be usefully dated. Biostratigraphy provides the most widely used time framework, a relative dating technique that can be related to an absolute time scale, but it often lacks the precision required for reconstructing environments and in some depositional settings appropriate fossils may be partly or totally absent (in deserts, for example). Palaeomagnetic reversal stratigraphy provides timelines, events when the Earth’s magnetism changed polarity, and may be applied in certain circumstances. The concept of sequence stratigraphy provides an approach to analysing successions of sedimentary rocks in a temporal framework. 

Lithostratigraphy and time: gaps in the record

One of the most difficult questions to answer in sedimentology and stratigraphy is ‘how long did it take to form that succession of rocks?’. From our observations of sedimentary processes we can sometimes estimate the time taken to deposit a single bed: a debris-flow deposit on an alluvial fan may be formed over a few minutes to hours and a turbidite in deep water may have been accumulated over hours to days. However, we cannot simply add up the time it takes to deposit one bed in a succession and multiply it by the number of beds. We know from records of modern alluvial fans and deep seas that most of the time there is no sediment accumulating and that the time between depositional events is much longer than the duration of each event: in the case of the alluvial fan deposits and turbidites there may be hundreds or thousands of years between events. If we consider a succession of beds in terms of the passage of time, most of the time is represented by the surfaces that separate the beds: for example, if a debris flow event lasting one hour occurs every 100 years the time represented by the surfaces between beds is about a million times longer than the time taken to deposit the conglomerate. This is not a particularly extreme example: in many environments the time periods between events are much longer than events themselves – floods in the overbank areas of rivers and delta tops, storm deposits on shelves, volcanic ash accumulations, and so on. The exceptions are those places where material is gradually accumulating due to biogenic activity, such as a coral reef boundstone. A bedding plane therefore represents a gap in the record, a hiatus in sedimentation, also sometimes referred to as a lacuna (plural lacunae). There are, however, some features that provide us with clues about the relative periods of time represented by the bedding surface. In continental environments, soils form on exposed sediment surfaces and the longer the exposure, the more mature the soil: analysis of palaeosols can therefore provide some clues and we can conclude that a very mature palaeosol profile in a succession would have formed during a long period without sedimentation. In shallow marine environments the sea floor is bioturbated by organisms, and the intensity of the bioturbation on a bedding surface can be used as an indicator of the length of time before the next depositional event. Sediment on the sea floor can also become partly or wholly lithified if left for long enough, and it may be possible to recognise firmgrounds, with associated Glossifungites-type ichnofauna, and hardgrounds with a Trypanites ichnofacies assemblage. Unconformities represent even longer gaps in the depositional record. On continental margins a sealevel fall may expose part of the shelf area, resulting in a period of non-deposition and erosion that will last until the sea level rises again after a period of time lasting tens to hundreds of thousands or millions of years. This results in an unconformity surface within the strata that represents a time period of that order of magnitude. Plate tectonics results in vertical movements of the crust and areas that were once places of sediment accumulation may become uplifted and eroded. Later crustal movements may cause subsidence, and the erosion surface will become preserved as an unconformity as it is overlain by younger sediment. Unconformity surfaces formed in this way may represent anything from less than a million to a billion years or more. The problems of determining how long it takes to deposit a succession of beds and the unknown periods of time represented by any lacunae, from a bedding plane to an unconformity, make it all-but impossible to gauge the passage of time from the physical characteristics of a sedimentary succession. In the 18th and 19th centuries various different estimates of the age of the Earth were made by geologists and these were all wildly different from the 4.5Ga we now know to be the case because they did not have any way of judging the period of time represented by the rocks in the stratigraphic record. Radiometric dating now provides us with a time frame that we can measure in years. This has made it possible to calibrate the stratigraphic chart that had already been developed for the Phanerozoic based on the occurrences of fossils.
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