Sedimentary rocks are often described as declining in quantity with increasing age due to the cumulative effects of crustal deformation and erosion. One important implication of such a model is that the geological record becomes progressively less voluminous and less complete with increasing age. Here we show that the predictions of a model in which the destruction of sedimentary rock is the predominant process signal are borne out only among sediments deposited on oceanic crust and among sediments deposited above sea level in non-marine environments. Most of the surviving volume of sedimentary rock (∼75%) was deposited in and adjacent to shallow seas on continental crust and does not exhibit any steady decrease in quantity with increasing age. Instead, shallow marine sediments exhibit large fluctuations in quantity that were driven by shifting global tectonic boundary conditions, such as those that occur during the breakup and coalescence of supercontinents. The accumulation of sediments on the continents has not been uniform in rate, but it does record a primary signal of net growth that has many implications for the long-term evolution of Earth’s surface environment.

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