Stratigraphy, Sedimentology and Palaeontology

Stratigraphy, Sedimentology and Palaeontology

Palynological applications to sedimentology – a BSRG workshop

Palynological applications to sedimentology – a BSRG workshop

The 2019 BSRG workshop ‘Palynological Applications to Sedimentology’ was held at the University of Aberdeen from the 17th-19th February. The trip was led by palynology experts Dr. Adam McArthur (University of Leeds), Dr. Alena Ebinghaus (University of Aberdeen) and Dr. Manuel Vieira (Shell), organised by Dan Tek from the University of Leeds, and sponsored by the International Association of Sedimentologists (IAS) and Shell. Twenty researchers from institutions across Europe flocked to the Granite City for an introduction to the weird and wonderful world of palynology.

After a day of travel and an evening of informal introductions, the workshop began in the morning of the 18th February with a scenic walk, guided by Adam, from the accommodation to the University. The workshop kicked off with an introductory presentation by Adam McArthur, defining palynology, the distinction between palynology and palynofacies, and the applications of both techniques to a variety of problems in almost all sedimentary environments. We then headed to the sample preparation laboratory for an overview of the sample preparation process. Due to the time-consuming and dangerous nature of palynology sample preperation using various acids, best practice was covered with the help of props, and a strong emphasis was placed on health and safety.

Adam and Ilse, the palynology lab technician, explaining the dangers of hydrofluoric acid.

The trip to the lab was followed by a core workshop led by Alena Ebinghaus on core from the Boltysh Crater lake, Ukraine, from which palynological studies have been used to uncover the mysteries of its post-K/Pg boundary fil. The participants were given some time to examine the core and note any interesting features before Alena took the group through the interpretation and explained the palynological work that has been undertaken on the core.

Alena discussing the features in this fascinating core with the group.

After lunch it was time to get hands-on with the critters! Microscopes were set up and the eager trainee palynologists spent some time exploring the microscopic world on the slides. Palynological slides were provided first by Alena, who has used this palynology data to investigate terrestrial lava-sediment interactions on drainage systems in Washington State, USA. The participants were challenged to identify and sketch the types of pollen and spores. Next, Adam provided three slides to each group from different deep-water sub-environments from outcrops in Baja California, Mexico, to showcase the value of palynofacies in palaeoenvironmental reconstructions.

Participants trying to identify the various types of pollen, spores and other organic matter under the microscope.

To top this busy day of learning, the participants were then invited to discuss their work specifically with the course leaders on a one-to-one basis. These conversations carried on as the group headed into Aberdeen for a meal and to the pubs to sample some of Scotland’s finest whiskeys.

Our group enjoying a meal at Manuel’s favourite local eateries.

The second day, run by Manuel Vieira, was industry focused and aimed to exemplify the key application of palynology to wider biostratigraphy, and to subsurface interpretation. Manuel first gave an introduction to biostratigraphy, using examples to demonstrate the drastic changes that can be made to subsurface well correlation based on biostratigraphy and palynology. We were then given an industry-style exercise whereby two logs were correlated using biostratigraphic and palynological markers, uncovering a drastic change in reservoir properties. After a wrap up session and some feedback it was time to say goodbye to our fellow course mates and leaders.

(left) Participants trying to identify their key horizons from a biostratigraphic chart; (right) a completed biostratigraphic chart being checked by Manuel and Alena.

A massive thanks to our course leaders Adam McArthur, Alena Ebinghaus and Manuel Vieira for providing such an insightful, engaging and fun workshop, and to all who attended the workshop!

Photographs taken and text written by Daniel Tek (, University of Leeds.

Strati 2019

The abstract submission to the third edition of the International Congress on Stratigraphy (STRATI) is now open. The congress will be held in Milano (Italy) from the 2nd to the 5th of July 2019.

STRATI 2019 follows the first edition held in Lisbon (Portugal) in 2013 and the second edition organized in Graz (Austria) in 2015. Several scientific sessions have been proposed covering a wide range of stratigraphic topics. For information and abstract submission go to


The Plastocene – Plastic in the sedimentary record

The Plastocene – Plastic in the sedimentary record

The University of Hull was privileged to host the annual British Science Festival in 2018. One of the key events was the Huxley Debate, which brings together world-leading experts to discuss a pressing issue facing society. The theme in Hull was “what do we do about ocean plastics?”. As part of the discussion, Professor Dan Parsons, Director of the Energy and Environment Institute, suggested that in the future we will see the evidence of our plastic waste in the sedimentary record, and that the emergence of this in the record could mark the boundary between Holocene and Anthropocene.

Professor Parson’s suggestion prompted one journalist to remark, in jest, that a better name for the new epoch would be “the plastocene”. It may have been a moment of mirth, but the feasibility of the emergence of the plastocene should not be discounted.

Plastic pollution is a huge issue. You will have undoubtedly heard the key statistics over and over by now – 12 million tonnes of the stuff enters the world’s oceans every year, and at that rate there will be more plastic than fish in them by 2050. Plastic is designed to be virtually indestructible and never really disappears, instead breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. It is possible that the only way we will ever get it out of the oceans is to wait for it to settle on the ocean floor and be buried – something we might be waiting a long time for – it floats.

Plastic deposits are already being found – some have useful (but unwelcome) side-effects such as marking the extents of flood events by forming wrack lines. For example, rubbish deposited by storms and tsunamis has been used to date the events (using packaging and labels) and determine the flood extents. On a recent visit to the south of Spain as part of an undergraduate field trip I observed wrack lines formed of tiny fragments of multi-coloured plastic. Such deposits can get buried, preserving the records with them.

Plastic wrack lines left behind in a dry river in the south of Spain (Authors own photos). Simon Reeve’s documentary ‘Mediterranean’ highlighted the issue of microplastics in this region of Spain, showing plastic sheeting buried within a dried river bed.

Plastics have already been found being formed into rocks. Corcoran et al (2015) observed a new type of rock dubbed ‘plastiglomerates’ around the beaches of Hawaii. They formed when plastics melted and fused with natural materials, such as beach deposits and volcanic rocks. They found no evidence of recent lava flows so suggested that the plastiglomerates were formed by the deliberate burning of the plastics.

The lithification processes behind beach and marine carbonate cementation can be extremely rapid, forming rocks in as little as a year, which means evidence of human activity is preserved and can be used for dating – examples include glass drink bottles and World War II debris. In the future we could end up seeing plastics preserved in these carbonate cements.

However, despite all of this it is unlikely our ancestors, or whatever might inherit the planet from us, will observe this period of the sedimentary record and refer to it as the plastocene. Plastic pollution is not the only pressure we are exerting on the planet, it is not even the most significant. We have also been making our mark on the sedimentary record for millennia, with the earliest mining and smelting activities resulting in spikes of lead in deposits to the nuclear tests of the 1950s leaving an imprint of Plutonium 239. We cannot isolate plastics from our impact on what truly is the Anthropocene.

Mining the Carboniferous in the Ruhr area (Germany)

Mining the Carboniferous in the Ruhr area (Germany)

During the upper Carboniferous period (Namurian, Westfalian and Stephanian)  large areas of central western Germany were covered by coastal swamp forests dominated by Lepidodendron und Sigillaria. Periodic marine and fluvial transgressions caused the swamps being regularly buried by siliciclastic material, resulting in up to 5500 m thick successions of alternating organic-rich and clastic-rich sedimentary rock. The organic-rich packages were later subject to coalification producing up to 100 individual coal beds in the area of the river Ruhr. Presumably, initial (private) coal mining started during the Middle Ages, however, with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, commercial mining started and peaked in the 19th until mid of 20th century with more than 120 million tons of coal mined per year. Today, only a few pits are mined sporadically, with the last pit (Zeche Proper Haniel) ceasing service this year.

Upper Carboniferous plant fossils (probably Coniferous) found in coal seams, (Esperschörpen Siepen, Germany).