You are on page 1of 7

Copyright 2012, The Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists (SEPM)

AN OVERVIEW OF THE FUNDAMENTALS OF SEQUENCE STRATIGRAPHY AND KEY DEFINITIONS

J. C. VAN WAGONER, H. W. POSAMENTIER,1 R. M. MITCHUM,


P. R. VAIL,2 J. F. SARG, T. S. LOUTIT, AND J. HARDENBOL
Exxon Production Research Company, P.O. Box 2189, Houston, Texas 77252-2189

The objectives of this overview are to establish funda- predict stratal relationships and to infer ages in areas where
mental concepts of sequence stratigraphy and to define ter- geological data are limited.
minology critical for the communication of these concepts. The following paragraphs define and briefly explain the
Many of these concepts have already been presented in ear- terms important for the communication of sequence stratig-
lier articles on seismic stratigraphy (Vail and others, 1977). raphy concepts. Each term will be discussed more fully in
In the years following, driven by additional documentation the nine papers previously mentioned.
and interaction with co-workers, our ideas have evolved be- Parasequences and parasequence sets are the fundamental
yond those presented earlier, making another presentation building blocks of sequences. A parasequence is a rela-
desirable. The following nine papers reflect current think- tively conformable succession of genetically related beds
ing about the concepts of sequence stratigraphy and their or bedsets bounded by marine-flooding surfaces and their
applications to outcrops, well logs, and seismic sections. correlative surfaces (Van Wagoner, 1985). Siliciclastic par-
Three papers (Jervey, Posamentier and Vail, and Posamen- asequences are progradational and therefore shoal upward.
tier and others) present conceptual models describing the Carbonate parasequences are commonly aggradational and
relationships between stratal patterns and rates of eustatic also shoal upward. A marine-flooding surface is a surface
change and subsidence. A fourth paper (Sarg) describes the that separates younger from older strata, across which there
application of sequence stratigraphy to the interpretation of is evidence of an abrupt increase in water depth. This deep-
carbonate rocks, documenting with outcrop, well-log, and ening is commonly accompanied by minor submarine ero-
seismic examples most aspects of the conceptual models. sion (but no subaerial erosion or basinward shift in facies)
Greenlee and Moore relate regional sequence distribution, and nondeposition, and a minor hiatus may be indicated.
derived from seismic data, to a coastal-onlap curve. The Onlap of overlying strata onto a marine-flooding surface
last four papers (Haq and others; Loutit and others; Baum does not occur unless this surface is coincident with a se-
and Vail; and Donovan and others) describe application of quence boundary. Marine-flooding surfaces are planar and
sequence-stratigraphic concepts to chronostratigraphy and commonly exhibit only very minor topographic relief rang-
biostratigraphy. ing from several inches to tens of feet, with several feet
Sequence stratigraphy is the study of rock relationships being most common. The marine-flooding surface com-
within a chronostratigraphic framework of repetitive, ge- monly has a correlative surface in the coastal plain and a
netically related strata bounded by surfaces of erosion or correlative surface on the shelf. The correlative surface in
nondeposition, or their correlative conformities. The fun- the coastal plain is not marked by significant subaerial ero-
damental unit of sequence stratigraphy is the sequence, which sion due to stream rejuvenation, a downward shift in coastal
is bounded by unconformities and their correlative con- onlap, a basinward shift in facies, nor onlap of overlying
formities. A sequence can be subdivided into systems tracts, strata. The correlative surface in the coastal plain may be
which are defined by their position within the sequence and marked by local erosion due to fluvial processes and minor
by the stacking patterns of parasequence sets and parase- subaerial exposure. Facies analysis of the strata across the
quences bounded by marine-flooding surfaces. Boundaries correlative surfaces usually does not indicate a significant
of sequences, parasequence sets, and parasequences pro- change in water depth; often, the correlative surfaces in the
vide a chronostratigraphic framework for correlating and coastal plain or on shelf can be identified only by corre-
mapping sedimentary rocks. Sequences, parasequence sets, lating updip or downdip from a marine-flooding surface.
and parasequences are defined and identified by the phys- A parasequence set is a succession of genetically related
ical relationships of strata, including the lateral continuity parasequences which form a distinctive stacking pattern that
and geometry of the surfaces bounding the units, vertical is bounded, in many cases, by major marine-flooding sur-
and lateral stacking patterns, and the lateral geometry of faces and their correlative surfaces (Van Wagoner, 1985).
the strata within these units. Absolute thickness, the amount Parasequence set boundaries (1) separate distinctive parase-
of time during which they form, and interpretation of re- quence stacking patterns; (2) may be coincident with se-
gional or global origin are not used to define sequence- quence boundaries; and (3) may be downlap surfaces and
stratigraphic units. boundaries of systems tracts. Stacking patterns of parase-
Sequences and their stratal components are interpreted to quences in parasequence sets (Fig. 1) are progradational,
form in response to the interaction between the rates of eus- retrogradational, or aggradational, depending upon the ratio
tasy, subsidence, and sediment supply. These interactions of depositional rates to accommodation rates. These stack-
can be modeled and the models verified by observations to ing patterns are predictable within a sequence.
A sequence is a relatively conformable succession of ge-
'Present addresses: Esso Resources Canada Ltd., 237 4th Avenue SW, netically related strata bounded by unconformities and their
Calgary, Alberta T2P OH6; 2Department of Geology, Rice University, correlative conformities (Mitchum, 1977). An unconform-
Houston, Texas 77251. ity is a surface separating younger from older strata, along
Sea-Level ChangesAn Integrated Approach, SEPM Special Publication No. 42
Copyright 1988, The Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists, ISBN 0-918985-74-9
OVERVIEW OF THE FUNDAMENTALS OF SEQUENCE STRATIGRAPHY 41

which there is evidence of subaerial erosional truncation by a type 1 sequence boundary and above by a type 1 or
(and, in some areas, correlative submarine erosion) or sub- a type 2 sequence boundary. A type 2 sequence (Fig. 4) is
aerial exposure, with a significant hiatus indicated. This bounded below by a type 2 sequence boundary and above
definition restricts the usage of the term unconformity to by a type 1 or a type 2 sequence boundary. A type 1 se-
significant subaerial surfaces and modifies the definition of quence boundary (Figs. 2, 3) is characterized by subaerial
unconformity used by Mitchum (1977). He defined an un- exposure and concurrent subaerial erosion associated with
conformity as "a surface of erosion or nondeposition that stream rejuvenation, a basinward shift of facies, a down-
separates younger strata from older rocks and represents a ward shift in coastal onlap, and onlap of overlying strata.
significant hiatus" (p. 211). This earlier, broader definition As a result of the basinward shift in facies, nonmarine or
encompasses both subaerial and submarine surfaces and does very shallow-marine rocks, such as braided-stream or es-
not sufficiently differentiate between sequence and paras- tuarine sandstones above a sequence boundary, may di-
equence boundaries. Local, contemporaneous erosion and rectly overlie deeper water marine rocks, such as lower
deposition associated with geological processes, such as shoreface sandstones or shelf mudstones below a boundary,
point-bar development, distributary-channel erosion, or dune with no intervening rocks deposited in intermediate depo-
migration, are excluded from the definition of unconform- sitional environments. A typical well-log response pro-
ity used in this paper. duced by a basinward shift in facies marking a sequence
A conformity is a bedding surface separating younger boundary is illustrated in Figure 2. A type 1 sequence
from older strata, along which there is no evidence of ero- boundary is interpreted to form when the rate of eustatic
sion (either subaerial or submarine) or nondeposition, and fall exceeds the rate of basin subsidence at the deposi-
along which no significant hiatus is indicated. It includes tional-shoreline break, producing a relative fall in sea level
surfaces onto which there is very slow deposition, with long at that position. The depositional-shoreline break is a po-
periods of geologic time represented by very thin deposits. sition on the shelf, landward of which the depositional sur-
Type 1 and type 2 sequences are recognized in the rock face is at or near base level, usually sea level, and seaward
record. A type 1 sequence (Figs. 2, 3) is bounded below of which the depositional surface is below base level (Po-

FIG. 2.Stratal patterns in a type 1 sequence deposited in a basin with a shelf break.
42 J. C. VAN WAGONER ET AL.

FIG. 3.Stratal patterns in a type 1 sequence deposited in a basin with a ramp margin.

samentier and others, this volume). This position coincides parasequence and parasequence set stacking patterns. Sys-
approximately with the seaward end of the stream-mouth tems tracts are also characterized by geometry and facies
bar in a delta or with the upper shoreface in a beach. In associations. When referring to systems tracts, the terms
previous publications (Vail and Todd, 1981; Vail and oth- lowstand and highstand are not meant to imply a unique
ers, 1984), the depositional-shoreline break has been re- period of time or position on a cycle of eustatic or relative
ferred to as the shelf edge. In many basins, the deposi- change of sea level. The actual time of initiation of a sys-
tional-shoreline break may be 160 km (100 mi) or more tems tract is interpreted to be a function of the interaction
landward of the shelf break, which is marked by a change between eustasy, sediment supply, and tectonics.
in dip from the gently dipping shelf (commonly less than The lowermost systems tract is called the lowstand sys-
1:1000) landward of the shelf break to the more steeply tems tract (Figs. 2, 3) if it lies directly on a type 1 se-
dipping slope (commonly greater than 1:40) seaward of the quence boundary; however, it is called the shelf-margin
shelf break (Heezen and others, 1959). In other basins, the systems tract if it lies directly on a type 2 boundary (Fig.
depositional-shoreline break may be at the shelf break. 4).
A type 2 sequence boundary (Fig. 4) is marked by sub- The lowstand systems tract, if deposited in a basin with
aerial exposure and a downward shift in coastal onlap land- a shelf break (Fig. 2), generally can be subdivided into
ward of the depositional-shoreline break; however, it lacks three separate units, a basin-floor fan, a slope fan, and a
both subaerial erosion associated with stream rejuvenation lowstand wedge. The basin-floor fan is characterized by
and a basinward shift in facies. Onlap of overlying strata deposition of submarine fans on the lower slope or basin
landward of the depositional-shoreline break also marks a floor. Fan formation is associated with the erosion of can-
type 2 sequence boundary. A type 2 sequence boundary is yons into the slope and the incision of fluvial valleys into
interpreted to form when the rate of eustatic fall is less than the shelf. Siliciclastic sediment bypasses the shelf and slope
the rate of basin subsidence at the depositional-shoreline through the valleys and the canyons to feed the basin-floor
break, so that no relative fall in sea level occurs at this fan. The base of the basin-floor fan (coincident with the
shoreline position. base of the lowstand systems tract) is the type 1 sequence
A depositional system is a three-dimensional assem- boundary; the top of the fan is a downlap surface. Basin-
blage of lithofacies (Fisher and McGowan, 1967). A sys- floor fan deposition, canyon formation, and incised-valley
tems tract is a linkage of contemporaneous depositional erosion are interpreted to occur during a relative fall in sea
systems (Brown and Fisher, 1977). We use the term sys- level.
tems tract to designate three subdivisions within each se- The slope fan is characterized by turbidite and debris-
quence: lowstand, transgressive-, and highstand systems flow deposition on the middle or the base of the slope. Slope-
tracts in a type 1 sequence (Figs. 2, 3) and shelf-margin, fan deposition can be coeval with the basin-floor fan or
transgressive-, and highstand systems tracts in a type 2 se- with the early portion of the lowstand wedge. The top of
quence (Fig. 4). the slope fan is a downlap surface for the middle and upper
Systems tracts are defined objectively on the basis of types portions of the lowstand wedge.
of bounding surfaces, their position within a sequence, and The lowstand wedge is characterized on the shelf by in-
44 J. C. VAN WAGONER ET AL.

cised-valley fill (Figs. 2, 3), which commonly onlaps onto systems tract is commonly widespread on the shelf and may
the sequence boundary, and on the slope by progradational be characterized by one or more aggradational parase-
fill with wedge geometry overlying and commonly down- quence sets that are succeeded by one or more prograda-
lapping onto the basin-floor fan or the slope fan. Lowstand tional parasequence sets with prograding clinoform geo-
wedge deposition is not coeval with basin-floor deposition. metries. Parasequences within the highstand systems tract
Lowstand wedges are composed of progradational to ag- onlap onto the sequence boundary in a landward direction
gradational parasequence sets. The top of the lowstand and downlap onto the top of the transgressive or lowstand
wedge, coincident with the top of the lowstand systems tract, systems tracts in a basinward direction. The highstand sys-
is a marine-flooding surface called the transgressive sur- tems tract is bounded at the top by a type 1 or type 2 se-
face (Figs. 2-4). The transgressive surface is the first sig- quence boundary and at the bottom by the downlap surface.
nificant marine-flooding surface across the shelf within the Systems tracts are interpreted to be deposited during spe-
sequence. Lowstand wedge deposition is interpreted to oc- cific increments of the eustatic curve (Jervey and Posa-
cur during a slow relative rise in sea level. mentier and others, this volume).
The lowstand systems tract, if deposited in a basin with
a ramp margin (Fig. 3), consists of a relatively thin low- lowstand fan of lowstand systems tractduring a time
stand wedge that may contain two parts. The first part is of rapid eustatic fall;
characterized by stream incision and sediment bypass of the slope fan of lowstand systems tractduring the late eus-
coastal plain interpreted to occur during a relative fall in tatic fall or early eustatic rise;
sea level during which the shoreline steps rapidly basinward lowstand wedge of lowstand systems tractduring the
until the relative fall stabilizes. The second part of the wedge late eustatic fall or early rise;
is characterized by a slow relative rise in sea level, the in- transgressive-systems tractduring a rapid eustatic rise;
filling of incised valleys, and continued shoreline progra- highstand systems tractduring the late part of a eus-
dation, resulting in a lowstand wedge composed of incised- tatic rise, a eustatic stillstand, and the early part of a
valley-fill deposits updip and one or more progradational eustatic fall.
parasequence sets downdip. The top of the lowstand wedge
is the transgressive surface; the base of the lowstand wedge The subdivision of sedimentary strata into sequences,
is the lower sequence boundary. parasequences, and systems tracts provides a powerful
The shelf-margin systems tract (Fig. 4) is the lower- methodology for the analysis of time and rock relationships
most systems tract associated with a type 2 sequence in sedimentary strata. Sequences and sequence boundaries
boundary. This systems tract is characterized by one or more subdivide sedimentary rocks into genetically related units
weakly progradational to aggradational parasequence sets; bounded by surfaces with chronostratigraphic significance.
the sets onlap onto the sequence boundary in a landward These surfaces provide a framework for correlating and
direction and downlap onto the sequence boundary in a ba- mapping. Interpretation of systems tracts provides a frame-
.sinward direction. The top of the shelf-margin systems tract work to predict facies relationships within the sequence.
is the transgressive surface, which also forms the base of Parasequence sets, parasequences, and their bounding sur-
the transgressive-systems tract. The base of the shelf-mar- faces further subdivide the sequence and component sys-
gin systems tract is a type 2 sequence boundary. tems tracts into smaller genetic units for detailed mapping,
The transgressive-systems tract (Figs. 2-4) is the mid- correlating, and interpreting depositional environments.
dle systems tract of both type 1 and type 2 sequences. It is
characterized by one or more retrogradational parasequence REFERENCES
sets. The base of the transgressive-systems tract is the
transgressive surface at the top of the lowstand or shelf- BROWN, L. F., AND FISHER, W. L., 1977, Seismic-stratigraphic interpre-
margin systems tracts. Parasequences within the transgres- tation of depositional systems: examples from Brazil rift and pull-apart
basins, in Payton, C. E., ed., Seismic StratigraphyApplications to
sive-systems tract onlap onto the sequence boundary in a Hydrocarbon Exploration: American Association of Petroleum Geol-
landward direction and downlap onto the transgressive sur- ogists Memoir 26, p. 213-248.
face in a basinward direction. The top of the transgressive- FISHER, W. L., AND McGowAN, J. H., 1967, Depositional systems in the
systems tract is the downlap surface. The downlap sur- Wilcox Group of Texas and their relationship to occurrence of oil and
face is a marine-flooding surface onto which the toes of gas: Gulf Coast Association of Geological Societies, Transactions, v.
17, p. 213-248.
prograding clinoforms in the overlying highstand systems HEEZEN, B. C., THARP, M., AND EWING, M., 1959, The floors of the
tract downlap. This surface marks the change from a retro- ocean, I. The North Atlantic: Geological Society of America Special
gradational to an aggradational parasequence set and is the Paper 65, 122 p.
surface of maximum flooding. The condensed section (Figs. MITCHUM, R. M., 1977, Seismic stratigraphy and global changes of sea
level, Part 1: Glossary of terms used in seismic stratigraphy, in Payton,
2-4) occurs largely within the transgressive and distal high- C. E., ed., Seismic StratigraphyApplications to Hydrocarbon Ex-
stand systems tracts. The condensed section is a facies ploration: Association of Petroleum Geologists Memoir 26, p. 205-
consisting of thin marine beds of hemipelagic or pelagic 212.
sediments deposited at very slow rates (Loutit and others, VAIL, P. R., MITCHUM, R. M., AND THOMPSON, S., Ill, 1977, Seismic
this volume). Condensed sections are most extensive during stratigraphy and global changes of sea level, Part 3: Relative changes
of sea level from coastal onlap, in Payton, C. W., ed., Seismic Stra-
the time of regional transgression of the shoreline. tigraphyApplications to Hydrocarbon Exploration: American Asso-
The highstand systems tract (Figs. 2-4) is the upper ciation of Petroleum Geologists Memoir 26, p. 83-97.
systems tract in either a type 1 or a type 2 sequence. This , AND TODD, G. R., 1981, North Sea Jurassic unconformities,
OVERVIEW OF THE FUNDAMENTALS OF SEQUENCE STRATIGRAPHY 45

chronostratigraphy and sea-level changes from seismic stratigraphy: formities and Hydrocarbon Accumulation: American Association of
Petroleum Geology of the Continental Shelf, Northwest Europe, Pro- Petroleum Geologists Memoir 36, p. 129-144.
ceedings, p. 216-235. VAN WAGONER, J. C., 1985, Reservoir facies distribution as controlled
-, HARDENBOL, J., AND TODD, R. G., 1984, Jurassic unconformi- by sea-level change: Abstract and Poster Session, Society of Economic
ties, chronostratigraphy and sea-level changes from seismic stratigra- Paleontologists and Mineralologists Mid-Year Meeting, Golden, Col-
phy and biostratigraphy, in Schlee, J. S., ed., Interregional Uncon- orado, p. 91-92.