Stratigraphy, Sedimentology and Palaeontology

Sedimentology – towards a disciplinary crisis?

This contribution adds to earlier articles on impact of global change on sedimentology and on the changing role of sedimentologists in a society moving towards a carbon-free energy future (e.g. Simmons and Davies, 2020, SSP BLOG).

Sedimentology is a child of the Age of Petroleum. And, the success story of petroleum is closely linked to the equally successful story of gasoline-powered mobility. Let’s first have a short look at the history of the automobile. We write November, 28th, 1895. Weather was cold and wet in Chicago. The publisher of the Chicago Times-Herald had chosen this day for the first car race in the U.S. Difficult weather conditions were the reason that only few teams decided to participate in this spectacular race. At the end of the day, only two cars succeeded in finishing the race with an average speed of around 10km per hour. Despite this difficult start for car racing, the invention of the gasoline-driven automobile revolutionized mobility and it had a most positive impact on petroleum industry. Oil was industrially drilled already in 1859 in Pennsylvania. It was celebrated as replacement of whale oil in illumination. We know, only a few years later, Edison invented a much more successful method for bringing light into towns and houses.

At the turn to the 20th century, a Dutch mining engineer made the prophecy that petroleum would have its great future not in illumination but in mobility. He was right, gasoline-powered automobiles began to radically change the mode of transportation. The emerging era of gasoline had a profound impact on petroleum industry and, hence, on career options for the experts in oil exploration – the geologists. In 1917, the first professional organization for oil geologists was founded, the American Association of Petroleum Geology AAPG. More than 100 years later, AAPG still counts close to 40 000 members from all over the world. Paleontology and stratigraphy, microscopy and petrography belonged to the toolkit of the professional oil geologists.

And, a new subdiscipline was added to geology in the early 1930ties. Hakon Wadell proposed in a short note in Science Magazine in 1931, that sedimentologists, defined as experts in sedimentation processes and in the formation of sedimentary rocks were included in a new geo-subdiscipline – named sedimentology. The first journal devoted to sedimentology, the Journal of Sedimentary Research (former Journal of Sedimentary Petrology) was published in 1931 by the Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists (SEPM). SEPM was founded 1927 as a daughter organization of AAPG. A new scientific organization with weaker connections to petroleum industry, the International Association of Sedimentologists (IAS), was established after the Second World War, in the early 1950ties with the aim to promote fundamental research in the field of sedimentology. Gerald Friedman summarized the early history of IAS in an article in 2004, published in Earth Science History. Friedman reminds us of Philip Kuenens exciting discoveries in physical sedimentology and of Francis Shepards groundbreaking investigations of deep-sea canyons in the early 1950ties.

Oil companies started to sponsor modern sedimentological studies and the American Petroleum Institute collaborated with Scripps Institution of Oceanography on aspects of geology in the Gulf of Mexico. The close link between sedimentology and petroleum industry remained intact. Universities integrated sedimentology as a new geology subdiscipline into their curricula. The new developments in experimental sedimentology or in marine carbonate sedimentology slowly started to change the image of this new subdiscipline in geology.

At ETH Zürich, where I started my undergraduate studies in 1969, we still were offered an undergraduate course in “sedimentary petrography” but not in sedimentology. Only in the 1970ties, a young Chinese-American professor, Kenneth Hsü, taught us students at ETH a fascinating course in process-oriented physical and chemical sedimentology. Sedimentology developed globally into a highly dynamic research field, where studies of modern sedimentary systems where combined with analysis of sedimentary rocks as archives of earth systems history.

Most important in the rapid growth of sedimentology was the first global Earth Science program, the Deep Sea Drilling Program (DSDP) and later the Ocean Drilling Program (ODP). The expertise of sedimentologists and of stratigraphers was of fundamental importance when the hypothesis of seafloor spreading was tested in the early years of DSDP. Of course, petroleum industry remained a key employer for geologists. However, sedimentologists rapidly extended their expertise into ocean and climate research, they made use of their process-oriented approach in the analysis of surface processes, in the evaluation of slope instabilities, of subaerial and subaquatic mass-flows and their environmental impact. Sedimentology experienced booming years between the 1970ties and the end of the 20th century. New branches, originally embedded in the discipline of sedimentology, like sedimentary geochemistry or biogeochemistry, developed into successful new subdisciplines. The investigation of sediments and sedimentary rocks was not a privilege of sedimentologists anymore. Engineers, geomorphologists, geochemists, geobiologists and others shared their interest in sediments with the sedimentologists. Today, Sedimentology is confronted with new competitors among geodisciplines. This is reflected in renaming of sedimentology as a discipline at many universities. Sedimentology evolved into “surface process studies”, “biogeochemistry” or “climate geology”. Did sedimentology, the grown-up child of petroleum industry,  pass its peak time at the end of the 20th century?

In the 21st century, the Age of Petroleum will be coming towards an end. Climate change is forcing us to move towards a net zero CO2 emission world. The International Energy Agency, for example, presents an energy transition road map with drastic and immediate reduction in oil, gas and coal exploration. The Paris agreement on limiting global warming preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, will have a major impact on fossil fuel industry.  Declining exploration activity will affect the job prospects for geologists. And what about Sedimentology, which for many observers outside the discipline remains closely linked with petroleum industry?  AAPG continues to be the influential mother organization of SEPM. This is not per se a problem. But, Sedimentology is confronted with an “image problem” when it is still seen as the child of an organization which continues to struggle with the undeniable scientific facts on CO2 and climate change. AAPG writes in its 2020 statement on climate change that “AAPG encourages its members, through their own research, to continue to develop their own understanding of climate science and policies that are outside the core competencies of the organization”.  This attitude – waste produced by burning of my product is not part of my core competence – is not acceptable anymore in the Anthropocene. Sedimentologists are asked, with their unique expertise, to pressure for fundamental change in organisations and industries still caught in the thinking of the 20th century.

Sedimentology today is much more than a child of fossil fuel industry. The expertise of sedimentology as a truly interdisciplinary science will continue to be of value in the transition to a net zero CO2 world. Our expertise will be valuable in “green and sustainable mining”, in the search for “critical minerals” or in energy transformation industries (geothermal industry, CO2 sequestration and so on). And, the shrinking fossil fuel industry will still ask for the expertise of sedimentologists.  We all are in need of debates on the future of sedimentology in a sustainable society. EGU and SSP are offering a unique platform for these debates. Sedimentology has the potential to build bridges between physical, biological and chemical aspects of sediment formation, it will profit from a close partnership with paleontology, the science of history of life, as well as with stratigraphy, the science which brings earth’s climate history into our minds.

I am a sedimentologist, stratigrapher and isotope geochemist, therefore, my EGU home division is SSP. From 2015 to 2019, I was President of SSP. As a professor at ETH Zürich, I have been teaching sedimentology, climate history, and Geology of Switzerland until 2014. My research focus is in Mesozoic paleoceanography and paleoclimatology, in Earth Systems History and in the co-evolution of life and the physical environment. For many years I was actively involved in the Ocean Drilling Program.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>