The Time Lords of Geology

Epic Time Lord

Time Lord, possibly outside the offices of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (credit: Sorcyress via Flickr)

Because it is the ultimate historical discipline, the essence of geology centres on time, measuring its passage and establishing correlations in time on a global scale so that an interlinked story of Earth evolution can be told. In fact geology is not just about a record of what happened in the four dimensions of place and time; it is a great deal more multidimensional, involving temperature, strain, chemistry, erosion, deposition, sea-level , the course of life and much more besides. Ever more multifaceted and, sadly, divided into subdisciplines and interfaces with other aspects of natural science that few if any individuals can grasp, an almost legally enforceable set of rules is needed to keep the order orderly. Unlike history and more akin to archaeology geological time is of two kinds, its precisely quantitative measure being a relative newcomer.

Since it emerged in the Enlightenment that began in the late 17th century geology has been dominated by a relative sense of timing: Steno’s Law of Superposition, and those relating to deformation, igneous eructations, erosion and deposition, first addressed systematically by James Hutton, being the most familiar. The notion of an absolute time scale into which events separated relative to one another could be fitted with confidence is a real latecomer. Although first attempted between 1650 and 1654 by Archbishop of Armagh James Ussher – he reckoned from the  Old Testament that everything began at dusk on Saturday 22 October 4004 BCE – the only useful and broadly believable approach to absolute time has been based on the decay of radioactive isotopes incorporated into minerals once they had formed within a rock. But that is no panacea for the simple reason that most of them form through igneous or metamorphic processes and only rarely in the course of sedimentation. It also has only become reliable and precise in the last two or three decades.

Tying together global records of all the kinds of process that have made, shaped and changed the Earth has therefore become an increasingly complex blend between local relative dating, burgeoning regional to global means of correlation and the odd point in absolute time. What has arisen is a dual system that, if truth were told, is often used in a cavalier fashion. Equally to the point, the rules have of late become unfit for purpose and are in need of revision, which is a task for the Time Lords, properly known as the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS). The trouble is, the rules have themselves evolved somewhat episodically while their subject is appropriately in continual motion and change, if not anarchic. To the outsider things can seem very odd indeed. Most reasonably well-read souls will have heard of the Cambrian and the Jurassic, largely because of the popularity of trilobites that blossomed in the one and dinosaurs that strutted the land in the other. What is less well known is that the two names have different usages as adjectives: one to signify an interval of time called a Period, the other a System of essentially piled-up sedimentary rocks.

There are greater dualisms that group the Period/System divisions: the largest Eon/Eonothem groupings of Archaean, Proterozoic and Phanerozoic; the Era/Erathem signifiers such as Palaeoproterozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic. Incidentally, the time between the formation of the Earth and the first palpable rocks, from about 4550 to 4000 Ma, has been called the Hadean but has no designated status, possibly because it has no rock record whatsoever. Divisions of Periods/Systems apply only to the time since fossils became abundant 541 Ma ago, and in order of fineness of division are Epoch/Series and Age/Stage. Example of the first can be Lower, Middle and Upper – to spice things up, Middle maybe omitted from some Periods/Systems – or they might be given names derived from type areas, such as the ever popular Llandovery at the base of the Silurian Period/System. Helpfully, the Cambrian contains Terreneuvian, Series 2, Series 3 and Furongian from early to late/bottom to top. The final global division has always floored undergraduates and shows little sign of relief – there are a great many Ages/Stages, in fact a round 100 (I may have miscounted), 98 with names, 2 currently unnamed and 4 in the Cambrian called Stages 2 to 5: confusing, that… has anyone spoken of the Stage 3 Stage or the Stage 5 Age of the Cambrian?

Worryingly, in my hasty overview of the ICS International Stratigraphic Chart above I have reversed the official designation of chronstratigraphic/geochronological nomenclature: is this likely to have me committed to the geoscientific equivalent of Guantanamo Bay, or merely limbo?

I have by no means exhausted officialise. Readers may not be surprised to learn that the Time Lords have bent Heaven and Earth literally to concretise the double entendres of geology. The base of almost every Age/Stage in the Phanerozoic Eonothem/Eon is defined at a suitably agreed point on the ground by, in a few cases, a real golden spike (I may be mistaken on this, as the only one I tried to visit was at the base of a Welsh cliff suitable only to be visited by – in the timeless phrase – ‘a strong party’). More prosaically there are monuments of various ethically appealing designs that go by the sonorous name Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point. I have it on reasonably good authority that ICS delegates have, on occasion, needed to be physically restrained from fist fights over which nation shall host a particular GSSP (the ‘B’ in the acronym is aspirated).

This is the point that all readers will have been waiting for: it has been suggested to ICS that the whole edifice is looked at very closely and perhaps revised (Zalasiewicz, J, et al. 2013. Chronostratigraphy and geochronology: A proposed realignment. GSA Today, v. 23 (March 2013), p. 4-8). For professionals this is an obligatory read, for others optional: there is no excuse as it is downloadable for free – click on the title. While you are about it, you can also download from GSA Today the famous proposal for an entirely new series/epoch called the Anthropocene (see also A sign of the times: the ‘Anthropocene’ in EPN issue of May 2011)

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