From New World Encyclopedia
Heavy minerals (dark) deposited in quartz beach sand in Chennai, India.

Sedimentology encompasses the study of modern sediments such as sand,[1] mud (silt),[2] and clay,[3] and understanding the processes that deposit them.[4] It also compares these observations to studies of ancient sedimentary rocks.[5] Sedimentologists apply their understanding of modern processes to historically formed sedimentary rocks, allowing them to understand how they formed.

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. Sedimentary rocks are useful in various applications, such as for art and architecture, petroleum extraction, ceramic production, and checking reservoirs of groundwater.

Basic principles

The aim of sedimentology, studying sediments, is to derive information on the depositional conditions that 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.

Uniformitarian geology works on the premise that sediments within ancient sedimentary rocks were deposited in the same way as sediments that are being deposited on the Earth's surface today. In other words, the processes affecting the Earth today are the same as in the past, which then becomes the basis for determining how sedimentary features in the rock record were formed. One may compare similar features today—for example, sand dunes in the Sahara or the Great Sand Dunes National Park near Alamosa, Colorado—to ancient sandstones, such as the Wingate Sandstone of Utah and Arizona, of the southwest United States. Since both have the same features, both can be shown to have formed from aeolian (wind) deposition.

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 beltsm where sediments are often intensely folded or deformed, recognizing 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 analyzed 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;

  • Measuring and describing the outcrop and distribution of the rock unit
    • Describing the rock formation, a formal process of documenting thickness, lithology, outcrop, distribution, contact relationships to other formations
    • Mapping the distribution of the rock unit, or units
  • Descriptions of rock core (drilled and extracted from wells during hydrocarbon exploration)
  • Sequence stratigraphy
    • Describes the progression of rock units within a basin
  • Describing the lithology of the rock
    • Petrology and petrography; particularly measurement of texture, grain size, grain shape (sphericity, rounding, and so on), sorting and composition of the sediment
  • Analyzing the geochemistry of the rock
    • Isotope geochemistry, including use of radiometric dating, to determine the age of the rock, and its affinity to source regions

Sedimentary rock types

Middle Triassic marginal marine sequence of siltstones and sandstones, southwestern Utah.

There are four primary types of sedimentary rocks: Clastics, carbonates, evaporites, and chemical.

  • Clastic rocks are composed of particles derived from the weathering and erosion of precursor rocks and consist primarily of fragmental material. Clastic rocks are classified according to their predominant grain size and their composition. In the past, the term "Clastic Sedimentary Rocks" were used to describe silica-rich clastic sedimentary rocks, however there have been cases of clastic carbonate rocks. The more appropriate term is siliciclastic sedimentary rocks.
    • Organic sedimentary rocks are important deposits formed from the accumulation of biological detritus, and form coal and oil shale deposits, and are typically found within basins of clastic sedimentary rocks.
  • Carbonates are composed of various carbonate minerals (most often calcium carbonate (CaCO3)) precipitated by a variety of organic and inorganic processes. Typically, most carbonate rocks are composed of reef material.
  • Evaporites are formed through the evaporation of water at the Earth's surface and are composed of one or more salt minerals, such as halite or gypsum.
  • Chemical sedimentary rocks, including some carbonates, are deposited by precipitation of minerals from aqueous solution. These include jaspilite and chert.

Importance of sedimentary rocks

Sedimentary rocks provide a multitude of products that both ancient and modern societies have come to utilize.

  • Art: Marble, although a metamorphosed limestone, is an example of the use of sedimentary rocks in the pursuit of aesthetics and art
  • Architectural uses: Stone derived from sedimentary rocks is used for dimension stone and in architecture, notably slate, a meta-shale, for roofing, sandstone for load-bearing buttresses
  • Ceramics and industrial materials: Clay for pottery and ceramics including bricks; cement and lime derived from limestone.
  • Economic geology: Sedimentary rocks host large deposits of SEDEX ore deposits of lead-zinc-silver, large deposits of copper, deposits of gold, tungsten, and many other precious minerals, gemstones, and industrial minerals including heavy mineral sands ore deposits
  • Energy: Petroleum geology relies on the capacity of sedimentary rocks to generate deposits of petroleum oils. Coal and oil shale are found in sedimentary rocks. A large proportion of the world's uranium energy resources are hosted within sedimentary successions.
  • Groundwater: Sedimentary rocks contain a large proportion of the Earth's groundwater aquifers. Human understanding of the extent of these aquifers and how much water can be withdrawn from them depends critically on knowledge of the rocks that hold them (the reservoir).

Recent developments in sedimentology

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 14, 2007, edition of Science, by Schieber et al.), counters the prevailing view of geologists that mud only settles when water is slow-moving or still. Instead, it shows 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."[6]

Macquaker and Bohacs, in reviewing the research of Schieber and coworkers, 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."


  1. Raymond Siever, Sand (New York: Scientific American Library, 1988, ISBN 071675021X).
  2. P.E. Potter, J.B. Maynard, and P.J. Depetris, Mud and Mudstones: Introduction and Overview (Berlin, DE: Springer, 2005, ISBN 3540221573).
  3. Georges Millot, W.R. Farrand, Helene Paquet (trans.), Geology Of Clays: Weathering, Sedimentology, Geochemistry (Berlin, DE: Springer Verlag, 1970, ISBN 0412100509).
  4. Gary Nichols, Sedimentology & Stratigraphy (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 1999, ISBN 0632035781).
  5. Donald R. Prothero and Fred Schwab, Sedimentary Geology: An Introduction to Sedimentary Rocks and Stratigraphy (New York: W.H. Freeman, 1996, ISBN 0 7167 2726 9).
  6. Physorg, As waters clear, scientists seek to end a muddy debate. Retrieved June 21, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Allen, John R.L. 2001. Principles of Physical Sedimentology. Caldwell, NJ: Blackburn Press. ISBN 1930665105.
  • Boggs, Sam Jr. 2005. Principles of Sedimentology and Stratigraphy. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall. ISBN 0131547283.
  • Hsü, Kenneth J. 2004. Physics of Sedimentology. New York: Springer. ISBN 3540206205.
  • Millot, Georges, W.R. Farrand, and Helene Paquet (trans.). 1970. Geology Of Clays: Weathering, Sedimentology, Geochemistry. Berlin, DE: Springer Verlag. ISBN 0412100509.
  • Nichols, Gary. 1999. Sedimentology and Stratigraphy. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 0632035781.

External links

All links retrieved January 25, 2023.


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