Time Not Our Time: Physical Controls on the Preservation and Measurement of Geologic Time

Chris Paola, Vamsi Ganti, David Mohrig, Anthony C. Runkel, Kyle M. Straub

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


Sadler's (1981) analysis of how measured sedimentation rate decreases with timescale of measurement quantified the vanishingly small fractional time preservation-completeness-of the stratigraphic record. Generalized numerical models have shown that the Sadler effect can be recovered, through the action of erosional clipping and time removal (the "stratigraphic filter"), from even fairly simple topographic sequences. However, several lines of evidence suggest that most of the missing time has not been eroded out but rather represents periods of inactivity or stasis. Low temporal completeness could also imply that the stratigraphic record is dominated by rare, extreme events, but paleotransport estimates suggest that this is not generally the case: The stratigraphic record is strangely ordinary. It appears that the organization of the topography into a hierarchy of forms also organizes the deposition into concentrated events that tend to preserve relatively ordinary conditions, albeit for very short intervals. Our understanding of time preservation would benefit from insight about how inactivity is recorded in strata; better ways to constrain localized, short-Term rates of deposition; and a new focus on integrated time-space dynamics of deposition and preservation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)409-438
Number of pages30
JournalAnnual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences
StatePublished - May 30 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank the editor and reviewer for helpful comments that improved the manuscript, Peter Sadler for sharing the data used in Figure 4, and Doug Jerolmack for insightful discussion of aspects of this review. The work was supported in part by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) via the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics (NCED), grant EAR-1246761, and the Delta Dynamics Collaboratory, grant EAR-1135427. K.M.S. and V.G. acknowledge support from, respectively, US NSF grant EAR-1024443 and the Imperial College London Junior Research Fellowship.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 by Annual Reviews. All rights reserved.


  • stratigraphy, time, physical, process, completeness


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