Correlation (Geology) (World of Earth Science)
In geology, the term correlation refers to the methods by which the age relationship between various strata of Earth's crust is established. Such relationships can be established, in general, in one of two ways: by comparing the physical characteristics of strata with each other (physical correlation); and by comparing the type of fossils found in various strata (fossil correlation).
Correlation is an important geological technique because it provides information with regard to changes that have taken place at various times in Earth history. It also provides clues as to the times at which such changes have occurred. One result of correlational studies has been the development of a geologic time scale that separates Earth history into a number of discrete time blocks known as eras, periods, and epochs.
Sedimentary rocks provide information about Earth history that is generally not available from igneous or metamorphic rocks. For example, suppose that for many millions of years a river has emptied into an ocean, laying down, or depositing, sediments eroded from the land. During that period of time, layers of sediments would have collected one on top of the other at the mouth of the river. These layers of sediments are likely to be very different from each other, depending on a number of factors, such as the course followed by the river, the climate of the area, the rock types exposed along the river course, and many other geological factors in the region. One of the most obvious differences in layers is thickness. Layers of sedimentary rock may range in thickness from less than an inch to many feet.
Sedimentary layers that are identifiably different from each other are called beds or strata. In many places on Earth's surface, dozens of strata are stacked one on top of each other. Strata are often separated from each other by relatively well-defined surfaces known as bedding planes.
In 1669, the Danish physician and theologian Nicolaus Steno (1638686) made a seemingly obvious assertion about the nature of sedimentary strata. Steno stated that in any sequence of sedimentary rocks, any one layer (stratum) is younger than the layer below it and older than the layer above it. Steno's discovery is now known as the law of superposition.
The law of superposition applies only to sedimentary rocks that have not been overturned by geologic forces. Igneous rocks, by comparison, may form in any horizontal sequence whatsoever. A flow of magma may force itself, for example, underneath, in the middle or, or on top of an existing rock stratum. It is very difficult to look back millions of years later, then, and determine the age of the igneous rock compared to rock layers around it.
Using sedimentary rock strata it should be possible, at least in theory, to write the geological history of the continents for the last billion or so years. Some important practical problems, however, prevent the full realization of this goal. For example, in many areas, erosion has removed much or most of the sedimentary rock that once existed there. In other places, strata are not clearly exposed to view but, instead, are buried hundreds or thousands of feet beneath the thin layer of soil that covers most of Earth's surface.
A few remarkable exceptions exist. A familiar example is the Grand Canyon, where the Colorado River has cut through dozens of strata, exposing them to view and making them available for study by geologists. Within the Grand Canyon, a geologist can follow a particular stratum for many miles, noting changes within the stratum and changes between that stratum and its neighbors above and below. One of the characteristics observable in such a case is that a stratum often changes in thickness from one edge to another. At the edge where the thickness approaches zero, the stratum may merge into another stratum. This phenomenon is understandable when one considers the way the sediment in the rocks was laid down. At the mouth of a river, for example, the accumulation of sediments is likely to be greatest at the mouth itself, with decreasing thickness at greater distances into the lake or ocean. The principle of lateral continuity describes this phenomenon, namely that strata are three-dimensional features that extend outward in all directions, merging with adjacent deposits at their edges.
Human activity also exposes strata to view. When a highway is constructed through a mountainous (or hilly) area, for example, parts of a mountainside may be excavated, revealing various sedimentary rock strata. These strata can then be studied to discover the correlation among them and with strata in other areas.
Another problem is that strata are sometimes disrupted by earth movements. For example, an earthquake may lift one block of Earth's crust over an adjacent block or may shift it horizontally in comparison to the second block. The correlation between adjacent strata may then be difficult to determine.
Physical correlation is accomplished by using a number of criteria. For example, the color, grain size, and type of minerals contained within a stratum make it possible for geologists to classify a particular stratum quite specifically. This allows them to match up portions of that stratum in regions that are physically separated from each other. In the American West, for example, some strata have been found to cover large parts of two or more states although they are physically exposed in only a few specific regions.
The stratum tends to have one set of characteristics in one region, which gradually changes into another set of characteristics farther along in the stratum. Those characteristics also change, at some distance farther along, into yet another set of characteristics. Rocks with a particular set of characteristics are called a facies. Facies changes, changes in the characteristics of a stratum or series of strata, are important clues to Earth history. If, for example, a geologist finds that the facies in a particular stratum change from a limestone to a shale to a sandstone over a distance of a few miles, the geologist knows that limestone is laid down on a sea bottom, shale is formed from compacted mud, and sandstone is formed when sand is compressed. The limestone to shale to sandstone facies pattern may allow an astute geologist to reconstruct what Earth's surface looked like when this particular stratum was formed. For example, knowing these rocks were laid down in adjacent environments, the geologist might consider that the limestone was deposited on a coral reef, the shale in a quiet lagoon or coastal swamp, and the sandstone in a nearby beach. So facies changes indicate differences in the environments in which adjacent facies were deposited.
One of the most important discoveries in the science of correlation was made by the English surveyor William Smith (1769839) in the 1810s. One of Smith's jobs involved the excavation of land for canals being constructed outside of London. As sedimentary rocks were exposed during this work, Smith found that any given stratum always contained the same set of fossils. Even if the stratum were physically separated by a relatively great distance, the same fossils could always be found in all parts of the stratum.
In 1815, Smith published a map of England and Wales showing the geologic history of the region based on his discovery. The map was based on what Smith called his law of faunal succession. That law says simply that it is possible to identify the sequence in which strata are laid down by examining the fossils they contain. The simplest fossils are the oldest and, therefore, strata that contain simple fossils are older than strata that contain more complex fossils.
The remarkable feature of Smith's discovery is that it appears to be valid over very great distances. That is, suppose that a geologist discovers a stratum of rock in southwestern California that contains fossils A, B, and C. If another stratum of rock in eastern Texas is also discovered that contains the same fossils, the geologist can conclude that it is probably the same stratumr at least of the same ages the southwestern California stratum.
The correlational studies described so far allow scientists to estimate the relative ages of strata. If stratum B lies above stratum A, B is the younger of the two. However determining the actual, or absolute, age of strata (for example, 3.5 million years old) is often difficult because the age of a fossil cannot be determined directly. The most useful tool in dating strata is radiometric dating of materials. A radioactive isotope such as uranium-238 decays at a very regular and well-known rate. That rate is known as its half-life, the time it takes for one-half of a sample of the isotope to decay. The half-life of uranium-238, for example, is 4.5 billion years. By measuring the concentration of uranium-238 in comparison with the products of its decay (especially lead-206), a scientist can estimate the age of the rock in which the uranium was found. This kind of radioactive dating has made it possible to place specific dates on the ages of strata that have been studied and correlated by other means.
See also Cross cutting; Dating methods; Field methods in geology; Landscape evolution; Strike and dip