Defining the time scale of abrupt events in the stratigraphic record is a primary goal of high-resolution paleoclimate analysis. A significant hurdle in this endeavor is that abrupt, i.e., millennial and submillennial, events in deep time can rarely be temporally constrained accurately owing to the typical absence of high-precision age control at the scale of the events. Instead, the duration of abrupt events is commonly estimated via the linear partitioning of time between age control points (e.g., defined using astronomical cycles or radiometric dates) that bracket the event and span longer time intervals. The flaw with this approach is that sedimentation is an unsteady process and does not proceed linearly with time. Here a numerical model, parameterized by geologic data, is used to quantify theoretical time-scale uncertainties that result from unsteady sedimentation. This work demonstrates that the duration of assumed millennial events estimated via a linear partitioning approach may be significantly in error, even in complete, astronomically calibrated and unbioturbated successions best suited to the study of abrupt paleoclimate change. The uncertainties established in this study are largely a function of the precise statistical properties of the sedimentation process, properties that are difficult to constrain empirically, particularly over short time spans. Nevertheless, this study illustrates how unsteady sedimentation sets an important limit on the attainable temporal resolution of the stratigraphic record, with consequent implications for defining accurately the rates and durations of rapid events in Earth history.
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