Online Encyclopedia

PART VII

Online Encyclopedia
Originally appearing in Volume V11, Page 669 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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PART VII.—STRATIGRAPmCAL GEOLOGY This branch of the science arranges the rocks of the earth's crust in the order of their appearance, and interprets the sequence of events of which they form the records. Its province is to cull from the other departments of geology the facts which may be needed to show what has been the progress of our planet, and of each continent and country, from the earliest times of which the rocks have preserved any memorial. Thus from mineralogy and petrography it contains information regarding the origin and subsequent mutations of minerals and rocks. From dynamical geology it learns by what agencies the materials of the earth's crust have been formed, altered, broken, upheaved and melted. From geotectonic geology it understands the various processes whereby these materials were put together so as to build up the complicated crust of the earth. From palaeontological geology it receives in well-determined fossil remains a clue by which to discriminate the different stratified formations, and to trace the grand onward march of organized existence upon this planet. Stratigraphical geology thus gathers up the sum of all that is made known by the other departments of the science, and makes it subservient to the interpretation of the geological history of the earth. The leading principles of stratigraphy may be summed up as follows: r. In every stratigraphical research the fundamental requisite is to establish the order of superposition of the strata. Until this is accomplished it is impossible to arrange the dates, and make out the sequence of geological history. 2. The stratified portion of the earth's crust, or what has been called the " geological record," can be subdivided into natural groups, or series of strata, characterized by distinctive organic remains and recognizable by these remains,, in spite of great changes in lithological character from place to place. A bed, or a number of beds, linked together by containing one or more distinctive species or genera of fossils is termed a zone or horizon, and usually bears the name of one of its more characteristic fossils, as the Planorbis-zone of the Lower Lias, which is so called from the prevalence in it of the ammonite Psiloceras planorbis. Two or more such zones related to each other by the possession of a number of the same characteristic species or genera have been designated beds or an assise. Two or more sets of beds or assises similarly related form a group or stage; a number of groups or stages make a series, formation or section, and a succession of formations may be united into a system. 3. Some living species of plants and animals can be traced downwards through the more recent geological formations; but the number which can be so followed grows smaller as the examination is pursued into more ancient deposits. With their disappearance other species or genera present themselves which are no longer living. These in turn may be traced backward into earlier formations, till they too cease and their places are taken by yet older forms. It is thus shown that the stratified rocks contain the records of a gradual progression of organic forms. A species which has once died out does not seem ever to have reappeared. 4. When the order of succession of organic remains among the stratified rocks has been determined, they become an invaluable guide in the investigation of the relative age of rocks and the structure of the land. Each zone and formation, being characterized by its own species or genera, may be recognized by their means, and the true succession of strata may thus be confidently established even in a country wherein the rocks have been shattered by dislocation, folded, inverted or metamorphosed. 3. Though local differences exist in regard to the precise zone in which a given species of organism may make its first appearance, the general order of succession of the organic forms found in the rocks is never inverted. The record is nowhere complete in any region, but the portions represented, even though extremely imperfect, always follow each other in their proper chronological order, unless where disturbance of the crust has intervened to destroy the original sequence. 6. The relative chronological value of the divisions of thegeological record is not to be measured by mere depth of strata. While it may be reasonably assumed that, in general, a great thickness of stratified rock must mark the passage of a long period of time, it cannot safely be affirmed that a much less thickness elsewhere must represent a correspondingly diminished period. The need for this caution may sometimes be made evident by an unconformability between two sets of rocks, as has already been explained. The total depth of both groups together may be, say r000 ft. Elsewhere we may find a single unbroken formation reaching a depth of ro,000 ft.; but it would be unwarrantable to assume that the latter represents ten times the length of time indicated by the former two. So far from this being the case, it might not be difficult to show that the minor thickness of rock really denotes by far the longer geological . interval. If, for instance, it could be proved that the upper part of both the sections lies on one and the same geological platform, but that the lower unconformable series in the one locality belongs to a far lower and older system of rocks than the base of the thick conformable series in the other, then it would be clear that the gap marked by the unconformability really indicates a longer period than the massive succession of deposits. 7. Fossil evidence furnishes the chief means of comparing the relative value of formations and groups of rock. A " break in the succession of organic remains," as already explained, marks an interval of time often unrepresented by strata at the place where the break is found. The relative importance of these breaks, and therefore, probably, the comparative intervals of time which they mark, may be estimated by the difference of the facies or general character of the fossils on each side. If, for example, in one case we find every species to be dissimilar above and below a certain horizon, while in another locality only half of the species on each side are peculiar, we naturally infer, if the total number of species seems large enough to warrant the inference, that the interval marked by the former break was much longer than that marked by the second. But we may go further and compare by means of fossil evidence the relation between breaks in the succession of organic remains and the depth of strata between them. Three formations of fossiliferous strata, A, C, and H, may occur conformably above each other. By a comparison of the fossil contents of all parts of A, it may be ascertained that, while some species are peculiar to its lower, others to its higher portions, yet the majority extend throughout the formation. If now it is found that of the total number of species in the upper portion of A only one-third passes up into C, it may be inferred with some plausibility that the time represented by the break between A and C was really longer than that required for the accumulation of the whole of the formation A. It might even be possible to discover elsewhere a thick inter-mediate formation B filling up the gap between A and C. In like manner were it to be discovered that, while the whole of the formation C is characterized by a common suite of fossils, not one of the species and only one half of the genera pass up into H, the inference could hardly be resisted that the gap between the two formations marks the passage of a far longer interval than was needed for the deposition of the whole of C. And thus we reach the remarkable conclusion that, thick though the stratified formations of a country may be, in some cases they may not represent so long a total period of time as do the gaps in their succession,—in other words, that non-deposition was more frequent and prolonged than deposition, or that the intervals of time which have been recorded by strata have not been so long as those which have not been so recorded. In all speculations of this nature, however, it is necessary to reason from as wide a basis of observation as possible, seeing that so much of the evidence is negative. Especially needful is it to bear in mind that the cessation of one or more species at a certain line among the rocks of a particular district may mean nothing more than that, onward from the time marked by that line, these species, owing to some change in the conditions of life, were compelled to migrate or became locally extinct or, from some alteration in the conditions of fossilization, were no longer imbedded and preserved as fossils. They may have continued to flourish abundantly in neighbouring districts for a long period afterward. Many examples of this obvious truth might be cited. Thus in a great succession of mingled marine, brackish-water and terrestrial strata, like that of the Carboniferous Limestone series of Scotland, corals, crinoids and brachiopods abound in the limestones and accompanying shales, but disappear as the sandstones, ironstones, clays, coals and bituminous shales supervene. An observer meeting for the first time with an instance of this disappearance, and remembering what he had read about breaks in succession, might be tempted to speculate about the extinction of these organisms, and their replacement by other and later forms of life, such as the ferns, lycopods, estuarine or fresh-water shells, ganoid fishes and other fossils so abundant in the overlying strata. But further research would show him that high above the plant-bearing sandstones and coals other limestones and shales might be observed, once more charged with the same marine fossils as before, and still farther overlying groups of sandstones, coals and carbonaceous beds followed by yet higher marine limestones. He would thus learn that the same organisms, after being locally exterminated, returned again and again to the same area. After such a lesson he would probably pause before too confidently asserting that the highest bed in which we can detect certain fossils marks their final appearance in the history of life. Some breaks in the succession may thus be extremely local, one set of organisms having been driven to a different part of the same region, while another set occupied their place until the first was enabled to return. 8. The geological record is at the best but an imperfect chronicle of the geological history of the earth. It abounds in gaps, some of which have been caused by the destruction of strata owing to metamorphism, denudation or otherwise, others by original non-deposition, as above explained. Nevertheless from this record alone can the progress of the earth be traced. It contains the registers of the appearance and disappearance of tribes of plants and animals which have from time to time flourished on the earth. Only a small proportion of the total number of species which have lived in past time have been thus chronicled, yet by collecting the broken fragments of the record an outline at least of the history of life upon the earth can be deciphered. It cannot be too frequently stated, nor too prominently kept in view, that, although gaps occur in the succession of organic remains as recorded in the rocks, they do not warrant the conclusion that any such blank intervals ever interrupted the progress of plant and animal life upon the globe. There is every reason to believe that the march of life has been unbroken, onward and upward. Geological history, therefore, if its records in the stratified formations were perfect, ought to show a blending and gradation of epoch with epoch. But the progress has been constantly interrupted, now by upheaval, now by volcanic outbursts, now by depression. These interruptions serve as natural divisions in the chronicle, and enable the geologist to arrange his history into periods. As the order of succession among stratified rocks was first made out in Europe, and as many of the gaps in that succession were found to be widespread over the European area, the divisions which experience established for that portion of the globe came to be regarded as typical, and the names adopted for them were applied to the rocks of other and far distant regions. This application has brought out the fact that some of the most marked breaks in the European series do not exist elsewhere, and, on the other hand, that some portions of that series are much more complete than the corresponding sections in other regions. Hence, while the general similarity of succession may remain, different subdivisions and nomenclature are required as we pass from continent to continent. The nomenclature adopted for the subdivisions of the geological record bears witness to the rapid growth of geology. It is a patch-work in which no system nor language has been adhered to, but where the influences by which the progress of the science has been moulded may be distinctly traced. Some of the earliest names are lithological, and remind us of the fact that mineralogy and petrography preceded geology in the order of birth—Chalk, Oolite, Greensand, Millstone Grit. Others are topographical, and often recall the labours of the early geologists of England—London Clay, Oxford Clay, Purbeck, Portland, Kimmeridge beds. Others are taken from local English provincial names, andremind us of the debt we owe to William Smith, by whom so many of them were first used—Lias, Gault, Crag, Cornbrash. Others of later date recognize an order of superposition as already established among formations—Old Red Sandstone, New Red Sandstone. By common consent it is admitted that names taken from the region where a formation or group of rocks is typically developed are best adapted for general use. Cambrian, Silurian, Devonian, Permian, Jurassic are of this class, and have been adopted all over the globe. But whatever be the name chosen to designate a particular group of strata, it soon comes to be used as a chronological or homotaxial term, apart altogether from the stratigraphical character of the strata to which it is applied. Thus we speak of the Chalk or Cretaceous system, and embrace under that term formations which may contain no chalk; and we may describe as Silurian a series of strata utterly unlike in lithological characters to the formations in the typical Silurian country. In using these terms we unconsciously allow the idea of relative date to arise prominently before us. Hence such a word as " chalk " or " cretaceous " does not suggest so much to us the group of strata so called as the interval of geological history which these strata represent. We speak of the Cretaceous, Jurassic, and Cambrian periods, and of the Cretaceous fauna, the Jurassic flora, the Cambrian trilobites, as if these adjectives denoted simply epochs of geological time. The stratified formations of the earth's crust, or geological record, are classified into five main divisions, which in their order of antiquity are as follows: (I) Archean or Pre-Cambrian, called also sometimes Azoic (lifeless) or Eozoic (dawn of life); (2) Palaeozoic (ancient life) or Primary; (3) Mesozoic (middle life) or Secondary; (4) Cainozoic (recent life) or Tertiary; (5) Quaternary or Post-Tertiary. These divisions are further ranged into systems, formations, groups or stages, assises and zones. Accounts of the various subdivisions named are given in separate articles under their own headings. In order, however, that the sequence of the formations and their parallelism in Europe and North America may be presented together a strati-graphical table is given on next page.
End of Article: PART VII
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