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Recently I started being more interested in the rational details of the sciences (... being often challenged about them by a creationist friend) and one of the creationist 'theories' I've encountered is how the law of superposition - i.e. the claim that layers of rocks form with the top layer being younger than the bottom - can be falsified. They mentioned some creationist experiments where layers formed 'sideways' and used it as one of the arguments to 'prove' that Earth does not have to be millions of years old.

Now I do not want to engage in a theological discussion, but I was wondering how accurate law of superposition is. Most articles I've read refer to it as an axiom of geology - i.e. something that is assumed, rather than proved. At the same time I am aware of the fact that it's a "first level big picture axiom", in that everyone is aware of the fact that under special circumstances the details get a bit foggy, but looking at the whole world it is correct "often enough" to warrant making it an axiom to simplify the theory for beginning geologists.

Thus my question is: In the global scope, how significant are the deviations from law of superposition in the structure of Earth's strata? Would you say less than 1% of the world show any significant deviation from the law?

I apologise for any jargon misunderstandings I may have committed.

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  • $\begingroup$ Strikes me that anything could be falsified by an omniscient creator. I think we can assume that if such a being were to fake something, they would do a good job of it, and thus we wouldn't be able to tell the difference by scientific enquiry ;-) $\endgroup$ – Semidiurnal Simon Oct 26 '15 at 7:00
  • $\begingroup$ It is entirely possible to ask this question, which is a great question, without mentioning creationism. I understand it's what motivated you to ask, but it risks encumbering the discussion with theological nonsense — and you say you would like to avoid that yourself. Maybe you can edit all that stuff out? Related: I just want to link to this other question and this one that mention the same 'law'. $\endgroup$ – kwinkunks Oct 27 '15 at 16:17
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The principle does not apply to all materials on earth as observed by us but is primarily concerned with sediments and rocks that form from sediments. Since sedimentation is a process driven by gravity grains settle one on top of others and there is no possibility to change that without adding additional processes. So from this perspective the principle is 100% in situations where it is applicable.

It is of course not uncommon to find situations where older material overlays younger. In such cases there has been additional forces (natural mind you) in action. It is for example possible for intrusions (magma) to be injected in older solid rocks thus completely changing the age sequence. It is also possible for crustal movement (tectonics) to fold the bedrock and thrust parts of the bedrock to overlay other parts hence creating situations where younger rocks seem to undelie older. It is also possible for sediments to slide or move downslope so that a reverse or at least disturbed age sequence is established. I could continue ad infinitum.

So many possibilities exist to obtain such cases but always with a logical explanation involving post-sedimentary processes. To correctly interprete observations, one has to have gained full understanding of the geological setting and history as well as physical processes. It is not generally wise to look at an outcrop or cut and create a larger scale interpretation without such background knowledge.

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  • $\begingroup$ No refs? No numbers answering the question? Sad. $\endgroup$ – Deer Hunter Oct 27 '15 at 4:54
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As Peter correctly responds, for sedimentary rocks the principle of superposition is pretty much watertight except where tectonic superposition takes place. The latter can either repeat the sedimentary sequence, overturn it, or overthrust earlier sequences. There are many possible geometries, which creationists tend to misrepresent. The principle of superposition is not an assumption. It is a logical deduction, repeatedly validated by field observation.

Whilst I note that the questioner doesn't want to get into discussion over creationism, as an Earth scientist who has studied creationist literature for decades, I must warn all readers that creationist literature, as it pertains to the Earth Sciences, is replete with misconceptions, distortions, quotations out of context, cherry-picking of data to give false impressions, and willful disregard of contrary evidence. Therefore, be very careful what you read, and check it out against genuine science!

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Here is another example where the law of superposition breaks. Mind you this is a natural process: meteorite impacts.

A meteorite impact will excavate material from the bottom, and deposit it above the crater rims. Here's how:

enter image description here

This will result in something that looks like this:

enter image description here

Source for both images is http://www.lpi.usra.edu/exploration/education/hsResearch/crateringLab/lab/ - see that website for full copyright info and more in depth explanations.

A very famous example of this inverted stratigraphy is Meteor Crater, AZ.

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  • $\begingroup$ True that a bolide impact disturbs stratiform deposition, but I'm not sure that it counts as an exception to the law of superposition. Usually the impacted ejecta is metamorphosed, such as transition of quartz to stishovite, or at least to strained quartz. I would class this as new deposition, in which case the law of superposition is preserved. $\endgroup$ – Gordon Stanger Oct 27 '15 at 9:11
  • $\begingroup$ Just an example of stuff that creationists can take out of context :) $\endgroup$ – Gimelist Oct 27 '15 at 9:16

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