It is widely understood that Earth's stratigraphic record is an incomplete record of time, but the implications that this has for interpreting sedimentary outcrop has received little attention. Here we consider how time is preserved at outcrop using the Neogene-Quaternary Red Crag Formation, England. The Red Crag Formation hosts sedimentological and ichnological proxies that can be used to assess the time taken to accumulate outcrop expressions of strata, as ancient depositional environments fluctuated between states of deposition, erosion and stasis. We use these to estimate how much time is preserved at outcrop scale and find that every outcrop provides only a vanishingly small window onto unanchored weeks to months within the 600-800 ka of ‘Crag-time’. Much of the apparently missing time may be accounted for by the parts of the formation at subcrop, rather than outcrop: stratigraphic time has not been lost, but is hidden. The time-completeness of the Red Crag Formation at outcrop appears analogous to that recorded in much older rock units, implying that direct comparison between strata of all ages is valid and that perceived stratigraphic incompleteness is an inconsequential barrier to viewing the outcrop sedimentary-stratigraphic record as a truthful chronicle of Earth history.
Scientific editing by Adrian Hartley