Letter | Published:

Theory of chaotic orbital variations confirmed by Cretaceous geological evidence

Nature volume 542, pages 468470 (23 February 2017) | Download Citation


Variations in the Earth’s orbit and spin vector are a primary control on insolation and climate; their recognition in the geological record has revolutionized our understanding of palaeoclimate dynamics1, and has catalysed improvements in the accuracy and precision of the geological timescale2. Yet the secular evolution of the planetary orbits beyond 50 million years ago remains highly uncertain, and the chaotic dynamical nature of the Solar System predicted by theoretical models has yet to be rigorously confirmed by well constrained (radioisotopically calibrated and anchored) geological data2,3,4. Here we present geological evidence for a chaotic resonance transition associated with interactions between the orbits of Mars and the Earth, using an integrated radioisotopic and astronomical timescale from the Cretaceous Western Interior Basin of what is now North America5. This analysis confirms the predicted chaotic dynamical behaviour of the Solar System, and provides a constraint for refining numerical solutions for insolation, which will enable a more precise and accurate geological timescale to be produced.

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This study was supported by NSF grants EAR-1151438 (S.R.M.) and EAR-0959108 (S.R.M. and B.B.S.). We thank R. Locklair for his cyclostratigraphic studies of the Libsack core, upon which this work builds. The Libsack core was donated to Northwestern University by EnCana, Inc., thanks to G. Gustason.

Author information


  1. Department of Geoscience, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, USA

    • Chao Ma
    •  & Stephen R. Meyers
  2. Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA

    • Bradley B. Sageman


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S.R.M. conceived the project, designed the study, and developed the statistical software for the analysis. C.M. conducted the analysis with guidance from S.R.M. and B.B.S. All authors interpreted the results and wrote the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Stephen R. Meyers.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks H. Pälike, S. N. Raymond and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Extended data

Supplementary information

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Data 1

    EXCEL file containing the Libsack FMI data.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Data 2

    EXCEL file containing the radioisotopically anchored astronomical time scale for the Libsack FMI data.

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Data 3

    PDF file containing the computer script to reconstruct the analysis of the Libsack FMI data, and an analogous analysis of the Laskar et al. (2004) solution. The script uses the free statistical software R (https://cran.r-project.org) and the package 'Astrochron' (Meyers, 2014; https://CRAN.R-project.org/package=astrochron).

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