Deep-Sea Sediments Reveal Solar System Chaos: an Advance in Dating Geologic Archives


Researchers use geologic records from deep-sea drill cores to extend our knowledge of the geologic record.

A day is the time for Earth to make one complete rotation on its axis, a year is the time for Earth to make one revolution around the Sun — reminders that basic units of time and periods on Earth are intimately linked to our planet’s motion in space relative to the Sun. In fact, we mostly live our lives to the rhythm of these astronomical cycles.

The same goes for climate cycles. The cycles in daily and annual sunlight cause the familiar diel swings in temperature and the seasons. On geologic time scales (thousands to millions of years), variations in Earth’s orbit are the pacemaker of the ice ages (so-called Milanković cycles). Changes in orbital parameters include eccentricity (the deviation from a perfect circular orbit), which can be identified in geological archives, just like a fingerprint.

The dating of geologic archives has been revolutionized by the development of a so-called astronomical time scale, a “calendar” of the past providing ages of geologic periods based on astronomy. For example, cycles in mineralogy or chemistry of geologic archives can be matched to cycles of an astronomical solution (calculated astronomical parameters in the past from computing the planetary orbits backward in time). The astronomical solution has a built-in clock and so provides an accurate chronology for the geologic record.

However, geologists and astronomers have struggled to extend the astronomical time scale further back than about fifty million years due to a major roadblock: solar system chaos, which makes the system unpredictable beyond a certain point. In a new study published in the journal Science, SOEST oceanography professor Richard Zeebe and Lucas Lourens from Utrecht University now offer a way to overcome the roadblock.

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Image via International Ocean Discovery Program