In earlier times many geologists clearly became cynical about what they had learned as students about Earth history from their stratigraphy courses. ‘The sea comes in, the sea goes out.’ This is indeed one of the most striking signals that emerges from study of the stratigraphic record in a given region: a succession of marine transgressions and regressions on the continents. Little scientific rigour was, however, applied to the subject, and students were left with no overarching explanation to provide any intellectual stimulation. Since the 1970s things have begun to change for the better, as less emphasis has been placed on learning the names of rock formations and fossil zones and more on the dynamic aspects of what to many ranks as a fascinating subject. This entails studying changing geographies and climates within a framework supplied by plate tectonics, the successions of strata being subjected to ever-more-rigorous sedimentological and geochemical analysis, and global correlation continually improved by further study of stratigraphically useful fossils. How do we infer sea-level changes from a given succession of sedimentary rocks? In essence we use facies analysis, which is based upon a careful study of the sediment types and structures, together with a study of the ecological aspects of the contained fossils, or palaeoecology. These features can be compared with those of similar sediments that are being deposited today, or similar organisms living today. Comparisons of this kind were practised by the likes of Cuvier as well as Lyell. Consider, for example, the Cretaceous succession in southern England. The oldest strata, well exposed on the coast from Sussex to Dorset, are known as the Wealden, and consist mainly of sandstones and siltstones that were deposited in a coastal plain (non-marine) setting. They are overlain by the Lower Greensand, a sandy unit of Aptian–Lower Albian age laid down in a very shallow marine environment. These conditions are revealed, not just by the types of fossils, which include the exclusively marine ammonites, but also by the distinctive green clay mineral glauconite, which gives its name to the rock formation and occurs today only in marine settings.
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