Sedimentology encompasses the study of modern sediments such as sand,[1] silt, and clay,[2] and the processes that result in their formation (erosion and weathering), transport, deposition and diagenesis.[3] Sedimentologists apply their understanding of modern processes to interpret geologic history through observations of sedimentary rocks and sedimentary structures.[4]

Sedimentary rocks cover up to 75% 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.

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 to features in the rock record—for example, by comparing modern sand dunes to dunes preserved in ancient aeolian sandstones—geologists reconstruct past environments.

Sedimentary rock types

Triassic Utah
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, the majority of carbonate rocks are composed of reef material.
  • Evaporites are formed through the evaporation of water at the Earth's surface and most commonly include halite or gypsum.[5]
  • 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 which modern and ancient society has come to utilise.

Basic principles

Heavy minerals (dark) deposited in a quartz beach sand (Chennai, India).

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 graded bedding 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.


Centripetal desiccation cracks (with a dinosaur footprint in the center) in the Lower Jurassic Moenave Formation at the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm, southwestern Utah.

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;
  • Analysing the geochemistry of the rock

Recent developments

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."[6]

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."[7]

Considerable recent research into mudstones has been driven by the recent effort to commercially produce hydrocarbons from them, in both the Shale gas and Tight Oil (or Light Tight Oil) plays.[8]

See also


  1. ^ Raymond Siever, Sand, Scientific American Library, New York (1988), ISBN 0-7167-5021-X.
  2. ^ Georges Millot, translated [from the French] by W.R. Farrand, Helene Paquet, Geology Of Clays - Weathering, Sedimentology, Geochemistry Springer Verlag, Berlin (1970), ISBN 0-412-10050-9.
  3. ^ Gary Nichols, Sedimentology & Stratigraphy, Wiley-Blackwell, Malden, MA (1999), ISBN 0-632-03578-1.
  4. ^ Donald R. Prothero and Fred Schwab, Sedimentary Geology: An Introduction to Sedimentary Rocks and Stratigraphy, W. H. Freeman (1996), ISBN 0-7167-2726-9.
  5. ^ Edward J. Tarbuck, Frederick K. Lutgens, Cameron J. Tsujita, Earth, An Introduction to Physical Geology, National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication, 2005, ISBN 0-13-121724-0
  6. ^ Juergen Schieber, John Southard, and Kevin Thaisen, "Accretion of Mudstone Beds from Migrating Floccule Ripples," Science, 14 December 2007: 1760-1763.
    See also "As waters clear, scientists seek to end a muddy debate," at (accessed 27 December 2007).
  7. ^ Joe H. S. Macquaker and Kevin M. Bohacs, "Geology: On the Accumulation of Mud," Science, 14 December 2007: 1734-1735.
  8. ^ Robert G. Loucks, Robert M. Reed, Stephen C. Ruppel, and Daniel M. Jarvie "Morphology, Genesis, and Distribution of Nanometer-Scale Pores in Siliceous Mudstones of the Mississippian Barnett Shale", Journal of Sedimentary Research, 2009, v. 79, 848-861.

External links


Alluvium (from the Latin alluvius, from alluere, "to wash against") is loose, unconsolidated (not cemented together into a solid rock) soil or sediment that has been eroded, reshaped by water in some form, and redeposited in a non-marine setting. Alluvium is typically made up of a variety of materials, including fine particles of silt and clay and larger particles of sand and gravel. When this loose alluvial material is deposited or cemented into a lithological unit, or lithified, it is called an alluvial deposit.


In geology a backswamp is a type of depositional environment commonly found in a floodplain. It is where deposits of fine silts and clays settle after a flood. Backswamps usually lie behind a stream's natural levees. During a flood, water levels will rise over the height of the levee, filling the floodplain with water and sediments. Once the flooding stops there is no place for the water to drain out, so the sediments it carried remain and settle. A backswamp usually lies where a bow river once flowed. A backswamp lies lower than the rest of the river valley.


Badlands are a type of dry terrain where softer sedimentary rocks and clay-rich soils have been extensively eroded by wind and water. They are characterized by steep slopes, minimal vegetation, lack of a substantial regolith, and high drainage density. They can resemble malpaís, a terrain of volcanic rock. Canyons, ravines, gullies, buttes, mesas, hoodoos and other such geologic forms are common in badlands. They are often difficult to navigate by foot. Badlands often have a spectacular color display that alternates from dark black/blue coal stria to bright clays to red scoria.


Clay is a finely-grained natural rock or soil material that combines one or more clay minerals with possible traces of quartz (SiO2), metal oxides (Al2O3 , MgO etc.) and organic matter. Geologic clay deposits are mostly composed of phyllosilicate minerals containing variable amounts of water trapped in the mineral structure. Clays are plastic due to particle size and geometry as well as water content, and become hard, brittle and non–plastic upon drying or firing. Depending on the soil's content in which it is found, clay can appear in various colours from white to dull grey or brown to deep orange-red.

Although many naturally occurring deposits include both silts and clay, clays are distinguished from other fine-grained soils by differences in size and mineralogy. Silts, which are fine-grained soils that do not include clay minerals, tend to have larger particle sizes than clays. There is, however, some overlap in particle size and other physical properties. The distinction between silt and clay varies by discipline. Geologists and soil scientists usually consider the separation to occur at a particle size of 2 µm (clays being finer than silts), sedimentologists often use 4–5 μm, and colloid chemists use 1 μm. Geotechnical engineers distinguish between silts and clays based on the plasticity properties of the soil, as measured by the soils' Atterberg limits. ISO 14688 grades clay particles as being smaller than 2 μm and silt particles as being larger.

Mixtures of sand, silt and less than 40% clay are called loam. Loam makes good soil and is used as a building material.

Cobble (geology)

A cobble (sometimes a cobblestone) is a clast of rock defined on the Udden–Wentworth scale as having a particle size of 64–256 millimeters (2.5–10.1 in), larger than a pebble and smaller than a boulder. Other scales define a cobble's size in slightly different terms. A rock made predominantly of cobbles is termed a conglomerate. Cobblestone is a building material based on cobbles.

Depositional environment

In geology, depositional environment or sedimentary environment describes the combination of physical, chemical and biological processes associated with the deposition of a particular type of sediment and, therefore, the rock types that will be formed after lithification, if the sediment is preserved in the rock record. In most cases the environments associated with particular rock types or associations of rock types can be matched to existing analogues. However, the further back in geological time sediments were deposited, the more likely that direct modern analogues are not available (e.g. banded iron formations).


Historically, diluvium was a term in geology for superficial deposits formed by flood-like operations of water, and so contrasted with alluvium or alluvial deposits formed by slow and steady aqueous agencies. The term was formerly given to the boulder clay deposits, which some early geologists supposed had been caused by the Noachian deluge, a concept known as flood geology or diluvialism.

In the late 20th century Russian geologist Alexei Rudoy proposed the term "diluvium" for description of deposits created as a result of catastrophic outbursts of Pleistocene giant glacier-dammed lakes in intermontane basins of the Altai. The largest of these lakes, Chuya and Kuray, had volumes of water in hundreds of cubic kilometers, and their discharge in peak hydrograph flow rate exceeded the maximum rates of the well-known Pleistocene Lake Missoula floods in North America. The term "diluvium" in the meaning of A. N. Rudoy has become accepted, and the process of diluvial morpholithogenesis can be found in modern textbooks.

Fluvial processes

In geography and geology, fluvial processes are associated with rivers and streams and the deposits and landforms created by them. When the stream or rivers are associated with glaciers, ice sheets, or ice caps, the term glaciofluvial or fluvioglacial is used.


Flysch () is a sequence of sedimentary rock layers that progress from deep-water and turbidity flow deposits to shallow-water shales and sandstones. It is deposited when a deep basin forms rapidly on the continental side of a mountain building episode. Examples are found near the North American Cordillera, the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Carpathians.

Granule (geology)

A granule is a clast of rock with a particle size of 2 to 4 millimetres based on the Krumbein phi scale of sedimentology. Granules are generally considered to be larger than sand (0.0625 to 2 millimetres diameter) and smaller than pebbles (4 to 64 millimetres diameter). A rock made predominantly of granules is termed a granule conglomerate.


Gravel is a loose aggregation of rock fragments. Gravel is classified by particle size range and includes size classes from granule- to boulder-sized fragments. In the Udden-Wentworth scale gravel is categorized into granular gravel (2 to 4 mm or 0.079 to 0.157 in) and pebble gravel (4 to 64 mm or 0.2 to 2.5 in). ISO 14688 grades gravels as fine, medium, and coarse with ranges 2 mm to 6.3 mm to 20 mm to 63 mm. One cubic metre of gravel typically weighs about 1,800 kg (or a cubic yard weighs about 3,000 pounds).

Gravel is an important commercial product, with a number of applications. Many roadways are surfaced with gravel, especially in rural areas where there is little traffic. Globally, far more roads are surfaced with gravel than with concrete or asphalt; Russia alone has over 400,000 km (250,000 mi) of gravel roads. Both sand and small gravel are also important for the manufacture of concrete.


Kankar or kunkur is a sedimentological term derived from Hindi, occasionally applied in India and the United States to detrital or residual rolled, often nodular calcium carbonate formed in soils of semi-arid regions.

It forms sheets across alluvial plains and can occur as discontinuous lines of nodular kankar or as indurated layers in stratigraphic profiles more commonly referred to as calcrete, hardpan or duricrust.

Marine transgression

A marine transgression is a geologic event during which sea level rises relative to the land and the shoreline moves toward higher ground, resulting in flooding. Transgressions can be caused either by the land sinking or the ocean basins filling with water (or decreasing in capacity). Transgressions and regressions may be caused by tectonic events such as orogenies, severe climate change such as ice ages or isostatic adjustments following removal of ice or sediment load.

During the Cretaceous, seafloor spreading created a relatively shallow Atlantic basin at the expense of deeper Pacific basin. This reduced the world's ocean basin capacity and caused a rise in sea level worldwide. As a result of this sea level rise, the oceans transgressed completely across the central portion of North America and created the Western Interior Seaway from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean.

The opposite of transgression is regression, in which the sea level falls relative to the land and exposes former sea bottom. During the Pleistocene Ice Age, so much water was removed from the oceans and stored on land as year-round glaciers that the ocean regressed 120 m, exposing the Bering land bridge between Alaska and Asia.


The term "molasse" () refers to sandstones, shales and conglomerates that form as terrestrial or shallow marine deposits in front of rising mountain chains. The molasse deposits accumulate in a foreland basin, especially on top of flysch—like deposits, for example, those that left from the rising Alps, or erosion in the Himalaya. These deposits are typically the non-marine alluvial and fluvial sediments of lowlands, as compared to deep-water flysch sediments. Sedimentation stops when the orogeny stops, or when the mountains have eroded flat.The molasse can sometimes completely fill a foreland basin, creating a nearly flat depositional surface, that nonetheless remains a structural syncline. Molasse can be very thick near the mountain front, but usually thins out towards the interior of a craton; such massive, convex accumulations of sediment are known as clastic wedges.

Mouth bar

A mouth bar is a bar in a river that is typically created in the middle of a channel in a river delta. It is created by a positive feedback between mid-channel deposition and flow divergence. As the flow diverges near the ocean, sediment settles out in the channel and creates an incipient mouth bar. As flow is routed around the incipient bar, additional sediment is deposited on the incipient bar. This continued process results in the formation of a full-fledged mouth bar, which causes the channel to bifurcate. This continued process leads to the characteristic fractal tree pattern found in some prograding river-dominated deltas.


A pebble is a clast of rock with a particle size of 2 to 64 millimetres based on the Krumbein phi scale of sedimentology. Pebbles are generally considered larger than granules (2 to 4 millimetres diameter) and smaller than cobbles (64 to 256 millimetres diameter). A rock made predominantly of pebbles is termed a conglomerate. Pebble tools are among the earliest known man-made artifacts, dating from the Palaeolithic period of human history.

A beach composed chiefly of surface pebbles is commonly termed a shingle beach. This type of beach has armoring characteristics with respect to wave erosion, as well as ecological niches that provide habitat for animals and plants.

Inshore banks of shingle (large quantities of pebbles) exist in some locations, such as the entrance to the River Ore, where the moving banks of shingle give notable navigational challenges.Pebbles come in various colors and textures and can have streaks, known as veins, of quartz or other minerals. Pebbles are mostly smooth but, dependent on how frequently they come in contact with the sea, they can have marks of contact with other rocks or other pebbles. Pebbles left above the high water mark may have growths of organisms such as lichen on them, signifying the lack of contact with seawater.


Sediment is a naturally occurring material that is broken down by processes of weathering and erosion, and is subsequently transported by the action of wind, water, or ice or by the force of gravity acting on the particles. For example, sand and silt can be carried in suspension in river water and on reaching the sea bed deposited by sedimentation. If buried, they may eventually become sandstone and siltstone (sedimentary rocks) through lithification.

Sediments are most often transported by water (fluvial processes), but also wind (aeolian processes) and glaciers. Beach sands and river channel deposits are examples of fluvial transport and deposition, though sediment also often settles out of slow-moving or standing water in lakes and oceans. Desert sand dunes and loess are examples of aeolian transport and deposition. Glacial moraine deposits and till are ice-transported sediments.


Silt is granular material of a size between sand and clay, whose mineral origin is quartz and feldspar. Silt may occur as a soil (often mixed with sand or clay) or as sediment mixed in suspension with water (also known as a suspended load) and soil in a body of water such as a river. It may also exist as soil deposited at the bottom of a water body, like mudflows from landslides. Silt has a moderate specific area with a typically non-sticky, plastic feel. Silt usually has a floury feel when dry, and a slippery feel when wet. Silt can be visually observed with a hand lens, exhibiting a sparkly appearance. It also can be felt by the tongue as granular when placed on the front teeth (even when mixed with clay particles).


A turbidite is the geologic deposit of a turbidity current, which is a type of sediment gravity flow responsible for distributing vast amounts of clastic sediment into the deep ocean.

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