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12. Interpreting Stratigraphic Columns

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  • Step 1: Diagnostic Sedimentary Structures

    Look for sedimentary structures that are characteristic of a specific environment or process


    • hummocky cross stratification - waves plus currents (storms)
    • wave ripples (vs current ripples) - waves (standing water)
    • herringbone cross stratification - bidirectional flow over hours or longer (tides)
    • reactivation surfaces - reshaping of bedforms due to changes in flow (tides)
    • mud drapes in sandstone - flow stops (tides)
    • bouma sequence - rapid flow slowing down (turbidity current)
    • mud cracks - mud contracts (exposed to air)
    • root casts - from plants, usually land plants (land)
    • faint ripple cross lamination with reverse grading - (eolian ripples)
    • meter-high dunes in fine sand - (eolian dunes)
    • diamictites - laminar flow - (debris flows, mud flows, melting ice)
    • diamictites with facetted clasts and striations - (glacial)
    • lone (or drop) stones in laminated shale - large grains rafted over quiet environment (icebergs; trees possible)

    Step 2: Tentative Environmental Interpretation

    Evaluate how these distinctive sedimentary structures relate to each other in the stratigraphic column.

    • Are there several indicators of waves or storms?
    • Are there several indicators of tides?
    • Are there several indicators of wind-deposited sediment?
    • Are there several indicators of glacial activity?

    Evaluate which environment(s) these processes occur most commonly to develop a tentative environmental interpretation.

    Step 3: Consistency with Other Features

    Compare the tentative interpretation to flow implied by other sedimentary structures in the column and evaluate whether they are consistent with your tentative environmental interpretation.

    • Examples of other sedimentary structures:
      • Trough cross stratification
      • Planar cross stratification
      • Current ripple cross lamination
      • Planar lamination

    Evaluate whether or not your tentative environmental interpretation is consistent with the presence of these other sedimentary structures.

    Step 4: Vertical Evaluation

    Evaluate how the vertical sequence of sedimentary structures changes to refine or correct your environmental interpretations.

    • Do structures occur in a distinctive pattern that suggests a depositional environment?
      • Is there an erosion surface followed by dune stratification followed by ripple lamination followed by a rooted horizon? (Then it might be migrating river channels or tidal channels if there are indicators of tidal currents.)
      • Do the structures suggest an environment that shallows upward into a river system? (Then it might be a delta building out into standing water.)

    Step 5: Walther's Law

    Use Walther's Law to refine your environmental interpretations and to test whether or not they are reasonable.

    • Try to sketch neighboring environments and interpret how they shifted through time. Are your interpreted vertical changes in environments consistent with neighboring environments horizontally? Does your interpretation require any jumps in environments or imply an unconformity? Revise your interpretation until it is consistent with your data.

    Often, there is some ambiguity about the depositional environment(s) represented in real rocks. By going through this process, you can reach a reasonable interpretation that is well supported by the data. You will also understand where the ambiguities are. This is particularly helpful if it is your own data and you can make more observations by doing more field work.