Normal grading

In sedimentology, the word ‘grading’ has nothing to do with exams and assignments. Instead, it refers to a regularly decreasing or increasing grain size within one sedimentary layer. Because it is much more common than the other alternative, upward decreasing grain size is called ‘normal grading’. Grains that consistently increase in size toward the top of the bed are responsible for ‘inverse grading’. Upward fining and coarsening are related terms that are often used to describe grain-size trends in not one, but multiple beds.

Normal grading in a turbidite from the Talara Basin, Peru

The simplest way to generate normal grading is to put some poorly sorted sand and water in a container, shake it up, and then let it settle. The larger grains will settle faster than the smaller ones (as Stokes’ law tells us) and most of the large grains will end up at the bottom of the deposit. [Note that some fine grains will be at the bottom as well – the ones that were already close to the bottom at the beginning of sedimentation.] This kind of static suspension settling is not how most sediment is deposited on a river bed or a beach; even if a grain is part of the suspended load, it usually goes through a phase of bedload transport, that is, a phase of jumping and rolling and bouncing on the bed, before it comes to rest. The resulting deposit usually has lots of thin layers, laminations, and there are no obvious and gradual upward changes in grain size.

What is needed is a sediment-rich flow that suddenly slows down or spreads out and looses its power to carry most of its sediment load. Grains are getting to the bottom so fast that there is not much time for the flow to keep them rolling and bouncing around; instead they quickly get buried by the other grains that are ready to take a geological break. While this is still quite different from static suspension settling (because the flow did not come to a full stop), it can be thought of as a modified version of static settling: all is needed is a horizontal velocity component, in addition to the vertical one. Of course, the segregation of the coarser grains to the bottom of the flow may have started much earlier. Typically, they never made it to the top in the first place.

Conglomerate bed in the Cretaceous Cerro Toro Formation, Torres del Paine National Park, Southern Chile. There is some inverse grading at the base of this bed, before the size of the clasts starts decreasing

Such large, sediment-laden flows are not very common, certainly not on a human timescale. When they do occur, they tend to show up in the news, especially if human artifacts, or humans themselves, become part of the normally graded deposits. Deposits of snow avalanches, volcanic ash-laden pyroclastic flows, subaerial debris flows, tsunamis, submarine turbidity currents can all show normal grading. The images shown here all come from deposits of large submarine gravity flows. Some of them (like the one below) have a muddy matrix, but the grading is still obvious (the two large clasts at the top of the bed have lower densities).

Normally graded conglomerate layer with a muddy matrix, Cerro Toro Formation, Chile

In recent years, some questions have been raised about the common presence of normal grading, especially in turbidites. The fact is that normal grading is often seen in rocks of all ages, and, in a simple view, it is a reflection of larger grains getting quickly to the bottom.

Normal grading is normal, after all.

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