Add to collection
  • + Create new collection
  • The study of fossils, combined with accurate dating, gives us a detailed picture of climate and environment changes in New Zealand over the last few million years.

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    Cliffs near Whanganui

    Pleistocene sedimentary rocks, looking east towards Whanganui. Different layers can easily be seen here – the oldest are at the bottom. The person standing at the bottom left of the picture gives an idea of scale.

    Just west of Whanganui are cliffs made of layer upon layer of sedimentary rocks, formed during the Pleistocene period. This is one of only a few places in the world where a great thickness of rocks of this age can be studied on land. What’s more, many of the layers are full of fossils. These help geologists date the rocks and provide clues to what the environment was like at the time.

    Relative dating

    The rock layers at Whanganui are stacked up with the oldest at the bottom and the youngest at the top, but tectonic activity has tilted the layers slightly. This means that, if you head west along the beach in your 4WD, which you can at low tide, the rocks you drive past get older.

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    Diagram of Whanganui cliffs

    Diagram showing relative dating of part of cliffs near Whanganui. These sedimentary rocks were horizontal when formed, with the oldest at the bottom. Tilting of the rocks means that now the rocks are older as you head towards the west.

    Absolute dating

    Dr Alan Beu from GNS Science is one of several scientists who study the rocks and fossils near Whanganui. To sort out changes over time, Alan needs accurate dates.

    One way to get them is to use the fission track method on zircon crystals in thin layers of tephra that have been trapped in the rocks. The tephra is made of ash from ancient eruptions of volcanoes in the central North Island. Two examples are the Onepuhi tephra (0.57 million years ago) and the Kupe tephra (0.64 million years ago). Dates of tephra layers allow Alan to pin down the ages of some of the other layers above and below them.

    Read how scientists are using cosmogenic surface exposure dating, an absolute dating method in A clock in the rocks – cosmic rays and Earth science.

    Climate cycles

    Many of the fossil shells in the Whanganui rocks are the same as species alive today, so we know what environment they lived in. Alan uses the fossils in each layer to help work out if the water the sediments were laid down in was deep or shallow and if it was warm or cool.

    It turns out that there wasn’t a simple build-up of one layer of sediment on top of another here. The rocks actually record cycles of changes between glacial periods (ice ages with cold temperatures and low sea level) and interglacial periods (warm temperatures and high sea levels).

    Rights: The University of Waikato. All Rights Reserved.

    Rocks and Ice Ages

    Watch this animated video and find out more on how sedimentary rock near Whanganui records 50 cycles of sea level change, each lasting up to 100,000 years.

    Each of the main layers near Whanganui represents rocks laid down during interglacials, whereas the boundaries between the layers mark where rock was eroded away during glacial periods. These boundaries are called unconformities.

    Oxygen isotopes in plankton

    How long did each glacial/interglacial cycle last? To answer this, Alan made use of research carried out on deep-sea cores around the world. These cores provide uninterrupted sequences of rocks going back millions of years. Scientists have measured oxygen isotopes present in the shells of microscopic fossil plankton, called foraminifera, in these rocks.

    The isotopes in the fossils show patterns of increase and decrease through time. These changes reflect ocean temperature during glacial and interglacial climate cycles. Seawater during glacial periods contains more oxygen-18, because the lighter oxygen-16 is taken up more by ice. Since living foraminifera take up oxygen from seawater, during glacial periods, they too will contain more oxygen-18.

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    Oxygen isotope cycles

    Oxygen isotope measurements in foraminifera from deep-sea cores. Oxygen isotope measurements, combined from many cores, show cycles of warming and cooling. The diagram only shows the last million years, but cycles going back 5 million years have been measured.

    The rocks containing the foraminifera fossils were dated using radiometric methods and paleomagnetism. They showed that something had happened to the length of the climate cycles. Until a million years ago, each climate cycle lasted about 41,000 years. Since then, the cycles have lasted about 100,000 years. The cycles are related to the Earth’s rotation and its orbit around the Sun, but reasons for the change a million years ago are not known.

    Alan has matched the layers of rock at Whanganui to dated oxygen isotope cycles from deep-sea cores.

    Activity ideas

    Students can practise their skills regarding relative and absolute dating in the activity Using absolute dating methods – students use an interactive to learn about rock dating methods and then test their knowledge with a quiz.

      Published 11 May 2011, Updated 20 March 2018 Referencing Hub articles
          Go to full glossary
          Download all