Scientific discipline concerned with the physical and chemical properties of sedimentary rocks and the processes involved in their formation, including transportation, deposition, and lithification of sediments. The aim of much sedimentological research is to interpret ancient environmental conditions by studying the constituents, textures, structures, and fossil content of the deposits.
Learn more about sedimentology with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Sedimentary rocks cover most of the Earth's surface, record much of the Earth's history, and harbor the fossil record. Sedimentology is closely linked to stratigraphy, the study of the physical and temporal relationships between rock layers or strata.
Uniformitarian geology, the premise that the processes affecting the earth today are the same as in the past, is the basis for determining how sedimentary features in the rock record were formed. By comparing similar features today - for example, sand dunes in the Sahara or the Great Sand Dunes National Park near Alamosa, Colorado - to the ancient sandstones such as the Wingate Sandstone of Utah and Arizona, of the southwest USA; since both have the same features, both can be shown to have formed from aeolian (wind) deposition .
There are four primary types of sedimentary rocks: clastics, carbonates, evaporites, and chemical.
The aim of sedimentology, studying sediments, is to derive information on the depositional conditions which acted to deposit the rock unit, and the relation of the individual rock units in a basin into a coherent understanding of the evolution of the sedimentary sequences and basins, and thus, the Earth's geological history as a whole.
The scientific basis of this is the principle of uniformitarianism, which states that the sediments within ancient sedimentary rocks were deposited in the same way as sediments which are being deposited at the Earth's surface today.
Sedimentological conditions are recorded within the sediments as they are laid down; the form of the sediments at present reflects the events of the past and all events which affect the sediments, from the source of the sedimentary material to the stresses enacted upon them after diagenesis are available for study.
The principle of superposition is critical to the interpretation of sedimentary sequences, and in older metamorphic terrains or fold and thrust belts where sediments are often intensely folded or deformed, recognising younging indicators or fining up sequences is critical to interpretation of the sedimentary section and often the deformation and metamorphic structure of the region.
Folding in sediments is analysed with the principle of original horizontality, which states that sediments are deposited at their angle of repose which, for most types of sediment, is essentially horizontal. Thus, when the younging direction is known, the rocks can be "unfolded" and interpreted according to the contained sedimentary information.
The principle of lateral continuity states that layers of sediment initially extend laterally in all directions unless obstructed by a physical object or topography.
The principle of cross-cutting relationships states that whatever cuts across or intrudes into the layers of strata is younger than the layers of strata.
The methods employed by sedimentologists to gather data and evidence on the nature and depositional conditions of sedimentary rocks include;
The longstanding understanding of how some mudstones form has been challenged by geologists at Indiana University (Bloomington) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The research, which appears in the December 14th, 2007, edition of Science, counters the prevailing view of geologists that mud only settles when water is slow-moving or still, instead showing that "muds will accumulate even when currents move swiftly." The research shows that some mudstones may have formed in fast-moving waters: "Mudstones can be deposited under more energetic conditions than widely assumed, requiring a reappraisal of many geologic records.
Macquaker and Bohacs, in reviewing the research of Schieber et al., state that "these results call for critical reappraisal of all mudstones previously interpreted as having been continuously deposited under still waters. Such rocks are widely used to infer past climates, ocean conditions, and orbital variations.