Magnetostratigraphy is a geophysical
Geophysics is the physics of the Earth and its environment in space; also the study of the Earth using quantitative physical methods. The term geophysics sometimes refers only to the geological applications: Earth's shape; its gravitational and magnetic fields; its internal structure and...

 correlation technique used to date sedimentary and volcanic sequences. The method works by collecting oriented samples at measured intervals throughout the section. The samples are analyzed to determine their characteristic remanent magnetization (ChRM), that is, the polarity of Earth's magnetic field
Earth's magnetic field
Earth's magnetic field is the magnetic field that extends from the Earth's inner core to where it meets the solar wind, a stream of energetic particles emanating from the Sun...

 at the time a stratum
In geology and related fields, a stratum is a layer of sedimentary rock or soil with internally consistent characteristics that distinguish it from other layers...

 was deposited. This is possible because volcanic flows acquire a thermoremanent magnetization
Thermoremanent magnetization
When an igneous rock cools, it acquires a thermoremanent magnetization from the Earth's field. TRM can be much larger than it would be if exposed to the same field at room temperature . This remanence can also be very stable, lasting without significant change for millions of years...

 and sediments acquire a depositional remanent magnetization, both of which reflect the direction of the Earth's field at the time of formation.


When measurable magnetic properties of rocks vary stratigraphically they may be the basis for related but different kinds of stratigraphic units known collectively as magnetostratigraphic units (magnetozones). The magnetic property most useful in stratigraphic work is the change in the direction of the remanent magnetization of the rocks, caused by reversals in the polarity of the Earth's magnetic field. The direction of the remnant magnetic polarity recorded in the stratigraphic sequence can be used as the basis for the subdivision of the sequence into units characterized by their magnetic polarity. Such units are called "magnetostratigraphic polarity units" or chrons.

If the ancient magnetic field was oriented similar to today's field (North Magnetic Pole
North Magnetic Pole
The Earth's North Magnetic Pole is the point on the surface of the Northern Hemisphere at which the Earth's magnetic field points vertically downwards . Though geographically in the north, it is, by the direction of the magnetic field lines, physically the south pole of the Earth's magnetic field...

 near the Geographic North Pole
North Pole
The North Pole, also known as the Geographic North Pole or Terrestrial North Pole, is, subject to the caveats explained below, defined as the point in the northern hemisphere where the Earth's axis of rotation meets its surface...

) the strata retain a normal polarity. If the data indicate that the North Magnetic Pole was near the Geographic South Pole
South Pole
The South Pole, also known as the Geographic South Pole or Terrestrial South Pole, is one of the two points where the Earth's axis of rotation intersects its surface. It is the southernmost point on the surface of the Earth and lies on the opposite side of the Earth from the North Pole...

, the strata exhibit reversed polarity.

Sampling procedures

Oriented paleomagnetic samples are collected in the field using a rock core drill, or as hand samples (chunks broken off the rock face). To average out sampling errors, a minimum of three samples is taken from each sample site. Spacing of the sample sites within a stratigraphic section depends on the rate of deposition and the age of the section. In sedimentary layers, the preferred lithologies
The lithology of a rock unit is a description of its physical characteristics visible at outcrop, in hand or core samples or with low magnification microscopy, such as colour, texture, grain size, or composition. It may be either a detailed description of these characteristics or be a summary of...

 are mudstones, claystones, and very fine-grained siltstones because the magnetic grains are finer and more likely to orient with the ambient field during deposition.

Analytical procedures

Samples are first analyzed in their natural state to obtain their natural remanent magnetization
Natural Remanent Magnetization
Natural remanent magnetization is the permanent magnetism of a rock or sediment. In some forms, it can preserve a record of the Earth's field and the tectonic movement of the rock over millions of years...

 (NRM). The NRM is then stripped away in a stepwise manner using thermal or alternating field demagnetization techniques to reveal the stable magnetic component.

Magnetic orientations of all samples from a site are then compared and their average magnetic polarity is determined with directional statistics, most commonly Fisher statistics or bootstrapping
Bootstrapping (statistics)
In statistics, bootstrapping is a computer-based method for assigning measures of accuracy to sample estimates . This technique allows estimation of the sample distribution of almost any statistic using only very simple methods...

. The statistical significance of each average is evaluated. The latitudes of the Virtual Geomagnetic Poles from those sites determined to be statistically significant are plotted against the stratigraphic level at which they were collected. These data are then abstracted to the standard black and white magnetostratigraphic columns in which black indicates normal polarity and white is reversed polarity.

Correlation and ages

Because the polarity of a stratum can only be normal or reversed, variations in the rate at which the sediment accumulated can cause the thickness of a given polarity zone to vary from one area to another. This presents the problem of how to correlate zones of like polarities between different stratigraphic sections. To avoid confusion at least one isotopic age needs to be collected from each section. In sediments, this is often obtained from layers of volcanic ash
Volcanic ash
Volcanic ash consists of small tephra, which are bits of pulverized rock and glass created by volcanic eruptions, less than in diameter. There are three mechanisms of volcanic ash formation: gas release under decompression causing magmatic eruptions; thermal contraction from chilling on contact...

. Failing that, one can tie a polarity to a biostratigraphic
Biostratigraphy is the branch of stratigraphy which focuses on correlating and assigning relative ages of rock strata by using the fossil assemblages contained within them. Usually the aim is correlation, demonstrating that a particular horizon in one geological section represents the same period...

 event that has been correlated elsewhere with isotopic ages. With the aid of the independent isotopic age or ages, the local magnetostratigraphic column is correlated with the Global Magnetic Polarity Time Scale (GMPTS).

Because the age of each reversal shown on the GMPTS is relatively well known, the correlation establishes numerous time lines through the stratigraphic section. These ages provide relatively precise dates for features in the rocks such as fossil
Fossils are the preserved remains or traces of animals , plants, and other organisms from the remote past...

s, changes in sedimentary rock composition, changes in depositional environment, etc. They also constrain the ages of cross-cutting features such as faults, dikes
Dike (geology)
A dike or dyke in geology is a type of sheet intrusion referring to any geologic body that cuts discordantly across* planar wall rock structures, such as bedding or foliation...

, and unconformities
An unconformity is a buried erosion surface separating two rock masses or strata of different ages, indicating that sediment deposition was not continuous. In general, the older layer was exposed to erosion for an interval of time before deposition of the younger, but the term is used to describe...


Sediment accumulation rates

Perhaps the most powerful application of these data is to determine the rate at which the sediment accumulated. This is accomplished by plotting the age of each reversal (in millions of years ago) vs. the stratigraphic level at which the reversal is found (in meters). This provides the rate in meters per million years which is usually rewritten in terms of millimeters per year (which is the same as kilometers per million years).

These data are also used to model basin subsidence rates
Sedimentary basin analysis
Sedimentary basin analysis is a geologic method by which the history of a sedimentary basin is revealed, by analyzing the sediment fill itself. Aspects of the sediment, namely its composition, primary structures, and internal architecture, can be synthesized into a history of the basin fill...

. Knowing the depth of a hydrocarbon source rock beneath the basin-filling strata allows calculation of the age at which the source rock
Source rock
In petroleum geology, source rock refers to rocks from which hydrocarbons have been generated or are capable of being generated. They form one of the necessary elements of a working petroleum system. They are organic-rich sediments that may have been deposited in a variety of environments including...

passed through the generation window and hydrocarbon migration began. Because the ages of cross-cutting trapping structures can usually be determined from magnetostratigraphic data, a comparison of these ages will assist reservoir geologists in their determination of whether or not a play is likely in a given trap.

Changes in sedimentation rate revealed by magnetostratigraphy are often related to either climatic factors or to tectonic developments in nearby or distant mountain ranges. Evidence to strengthen this interpretation can often be found by looking for subtle changes in the composition of the rocks in the section. Changes in sandstone composition are often used for this type of interpretation.
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