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Connecting and dating with tephras: principles, functioning, and application of tephrochronology in Quaternary research

Tephrochronology, the characterisation and use of volcanic-ash layers as a unique chronostratigraphic linking, synchronizing, and dating tool, has become a globally-practised discipline of immense practical value in a wide range of subjects including Quaternary stratigraphy, palaeoclimatology, palaeoecology, palaeolimnology, physical geography, geomorphology, volcanology, geochronology, archaeology, human evolution, anthropology, and human disease and medicine. The advent of systematic studies of cryptotephras – the identification, correlation, and dating of sparse, fine-grained glass-shard concentrations ‘hidden’ within sediments or soils – over the past ~20 years has been revolutionary. New cryptotephra techniques developed in northwestern Europe and Scandinavia in particular and in North America most recently adapted or improved to help solve problems as they arose, have now been applied to sedimentary sequences (including ice) on all the continents. The result has been the extension of tephra isochrons over wide areas hundreds to several thousands of kilometres from source volcanoes. Taphonomic and other issues, such as quantifying uncertainties in correlation, provide scope for future work. Developments in dating and analytical methods have led to important advances in the application of tephrochronology in recent times. In particular: (i) the ITPFT (glass fission-track) method has enabled landscapes and sequences to be dated where previously no dates were obtainable or where dating was problematic; (ii) new EMPA protocols enabling narrow-beam analyses (<5 um) of glass shards, or small melt inclusions, have been developed, meaning that small (typically distal) glass shards or melt inclusions <~10 um in diameter can now be analysed more efficaciously than previously (and with reduced risk of accidentally including microlites in the analysis as could occur with wide-beam analyses); (iii) LA-ICPMS method for trace element analysis of individual shards <~10 um in diameter is generating more detailed ‘fingerprints’ for enhancing tephra-correlation efficacy (Pearce et al., 2011, 2014; Pearce, 2014); and (iv) the revolutionary rise of Bayesian probability age modelling has helped to improve age frameworks for tephras of the late-glacial to Holocene period especially.
Conference Contribution
Type of thesis
Lowe, D. J. (2015). Connecting and dating with tephras: principles, functioning, and application of tephrochronology in Quaternary research. In C. Prior, K. Rogers, & M. J. Vandergoes (Eds.), 12th Quaternary Techniques Short Course-Techniques of Palaeoclimatic and Palaeoenvironmental Reconstruction. (pp. 1–30). Lower Hutt, New Zealand: National Isotope Centre, GNS Science.
National Isotope Centre, GNS Science
©2015 the author.