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Radiometric Dating and the Geological Time Scale

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Relative Dating of Rock Layers

It is not about the theory behind radiometric dating methods, it is about their application , and it therefore assumes the reader has some familiarity with the technique already refer to "Other Sources" for more information. As an example of how they are used, radiometric dates from geologically simple, fossiliferous Cretaceous rocks in western North America are compared to the geological time scale. To get to that point, there is also a historical discussion and description of non-radiometric dating methods. A common form of criticism is to cite geologically complicated situations where the application of radiometric dating is very challenging. These are often characterised as the norm, rather than the exception. I thought it would be useful to present an example where the geology is simple, and unsurprisingly, the method does work well, to show the quality of data that would have to be invalidated before a major revision of the geologic time scale could be accepted by conventional scientists. Geochronologists do not claim that radiometric dating is foolproof no scientific method is , but it does work reliably for most samples.

In many cases, the daughter nuclide itself is radioactive, resulting in a decay chaineventually ending with the formation of a stable nonradioactive daughter nuclide; each step in such a chain is characterized by a distinct half-life. In these cases, usually the half-life of interest in radiometric dating is the longest one in the chain, which is the rate-limiting factor in the ultimate transformation of the radioactive nuclide into its stable daughter.

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Isotopic systems that have been exploited for radiometric dating have half-lives ranging from only about 10 years e. For most radioactive nuclides, the half-life depends solely on nuclear properties and is essentially constant. It is not affected by external factors such as temperaturepressurechemical environment, or presence of a magnetic or electric field.

For all other nuclides, the proportion of the original nuclide to its decay products changes in a predictable way as the original nuclide decays over time. This predictability allows the relative abundances of related nuclides to be used as a clock to measure the time from the incorporation of the original nuclides into a material to the present.

Nature has conveniently provided us with radioactive nuclides that have half-lives which range from considerably longer than the age of the universeto less than a zeptosecond.

This allows one to measure a very wide range of ages. Isotopes with very long half-lives are called "stable isotopes," and isotopes with very short half-lives are known as "extinct isotopes. The radioactive decay constant, the probability that an atom will decay per year, is the solid foundation of the common measurement of radioactivity. The accuracy and precision of the determination of an age and a nuclide's half-life depends on the accuracy and precision of the decay constant measurement.

Unfortunately for nuclides with high decay constants which are useful for dating very old sampleslong periods of time decades are required to accumulate enough decay products in a single sample to accurately measure them. A faster method involves using particle counters to determine alpha, beta or gamma activity, and then dividing that by the number of radioactive nuclides.

However, it is challenging and expensive to accurately determine the number of radioactive nuclides. Alternatively, decay constants can be determined by comparing isotope data for rocks of known age. This method requires at least one of the isotope systems to be very precisely calibrated, such as the Pb-Pb system. The basic equation of radiometric dating requires that neither the parent nuclide nor the daughter product can enter or leave the material after its formation.

The possible confounding effects of contamination of parent and daughter isotopes have to be considered, as do the effects of any loss or gain of such isotopes since the sample was created. It is therefore essential to have as much information as possible about the material being dated and to check for possible signs of alteration.

Alternatively, if several different minerals can be dated from the same sample and are assumed to be formed by the same event and were in equilibrium with the reservoir when they formed, they should form an isochron. This can reduce the problem of contamination. In uranium-lead datingthe concordia diagram is used which also decreases the problem of nuclide loss. Finally, correlation between different isotopic dating methods may be required to confirm the age of a sample.

For example, the age of the Amitsoq gneisses from western Greenland was determined to be 3. Accurate radiometric dating generally requires that the parent has a long enough half-life that it will be present in significant amounts at the time of measurement except as described below under "Dating with short-lived extinct radionuclides"the half-life of the parent is accurately known, and enough of the daughter product is produced to be accurately measured and distinguished from the initial amount of the daughter present in the material.

The procedures used to isolate and analyze the parent and daughter nuclides must be precise and accurate. This normally involves isotope-ratio mass spectrometry. The precision of a dating method depends in part on the half-life of the radioactive isotope involved.

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For instance, carbon has a half-life of 5, years. After an organism has been dead for 60, years, so little carbon is left that accurate dating cannot be established. On the other hand, the concentration of carbon falls off so steeply that the age of relatively young remains can be determined precisely to within a few decades.

The closure temperature or blocking temperature represents the temperature below which the mineral is a closed system for the studied isotopes. If a material that selectively rejects the daughter nuclide is heated above this temperature, any daughter nuclides that have been accumulated over time will be lost through diffusionresetting the isotopic "clock" to zero. As the mineral cools, the crystal structure begins to form and diffusion of isotopes is less easy.

At a certain temperature, the crystal structure has formed sufficiently to prevent diffusion of isotopes. Thus an igneous or metamorphic rock or melt, which is slowly cooling, does not begin to exhibit measurable radioactive decay until it cools below the closure temperature.

The age that can be calculated by radiometric dating is thus the time at which the rock or mineral cooled to closure temperature. These temperatures are experimentally determined in the lab by artificially resetting sample minerals using a high-temperature furnace. This field is known as thermochronology or thermochronometry. The mathematical expression that relates radioactive decay to geologic time is [14] [16].

The equation is most conveniently expressed in terms of the measured quantity N t rather than the constant initial value N o. The above equation makes use of information on the composition of parent and daughter isotopes at the time the material being tested cooled below its closure temperature. This is well-established for most isotopic systems. An isochron plot is used to solve the age equation graphically and calculate the age of the sample and the original composition.

Radiometric dating has been carried out since when it was invented by Ernest Rutherford as a method by which one might determine the age of the Earth. In the century since then the techniques have been greatly improved and expanded. The mass spectrometer was invented in the s and began to be used in radiometric dating in the s.

It operates by generating a beam of ionized atoms from the sample under test. The ions then travel through a magnetic field, which diverts them into different sampling sensors, known as " Faraday cups ", depending on their mass and level of ionization. On impact in the cups, the ions set up a very weak current that can be measured to determine the rate of impacts and the relative concentrations of different atoms in the beams.

Uranium-lead radiometric dating involves using uranium or uranium to date a substance's absolute age. This scheme has been refined to the point that the error margin in dates of rocks can be as low as less than two million years in two-and-a-half billion years. Uranium-lead dating is often performed on the mineral zircon ZrSiO 4though it can be used on other materials, such as baddeleyiteas well as monazite see: monazite geochronology. Zircon has a very high closure temperature, is resistant to mechanical weathering and is very chemically inert.

Zircon also forms multiple crystal layers during metamorphic events, which each may record an isotopic age of the event. One of its great advantages is that any sample provides two clocks, one based on uranium's decay to lead with a half-life of about million years, and one based on uranium's decay to lead with a half-life of about 4.

This can be seen in the concordia diagram, where the samples plot along an errorchron straight line which intersects the concordia curve at the age of the sample. This involves the alpha decay of Sm to Nd with a half-life of 1. Accuracy levels of within twenty million years in ages of two-and-a-half billion years are achievable.

This involves electron capture or positron decay of potassium to argon Potassium has a half-life of 1. This is based on the beta decay of rubidium to strontiumwith a half-life of 50 billion years. This scheme is used to date old igneous and metamorphic rocksand has also been used to date lunar samples. Closure temperatures are so high that they are not a concern. Rubidium-strontium dating is not as precise as the uranium-lead method, with errors of 30 to 50 million years for a 3-billion-year-old sample.

A relatively short-range dating technique is based on the decay of uranium into thorium, a substance with a half-life of about 80, years. It is accompanied by a sister process, in which uranium decays into protactinium, which has a half-life of 32, years. While uranium is water-soluble, thorium and protactinium are not, and so they are selectively precipitated into ocean-floor sedimentsfrom which their ratios are measured.

The scheme has a range of several hundred thousand years. A related method is ionium-thorium datingwhich measures the ratio of ionium thorium to thorium in ocean sediment.

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Radiocarbon dating is also simply called carbon dating. Carbon is a radioactive isotope of carbon, with a half-life of 5, years [27] [28] which is very short compared with the above isotopesand decays into nitrogen.

Carbon, though, is continuously created through collisions of neutrons generated by cosmic rays with nitrogen in the upper atmosphere and thus remains at a near-constant level on Earth. The carbon ends up as a trace component in atmospheric carbon dioxide CO 2.

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A carbon-based life form acquires carbon during its lifetime. Plants acquire it through photosynthesisand animals acquire it from consumption of plants and other animals. When an organism dies, it ceases to take in new carbon, and the existing isotope decays with a characteristic half-life years.

The proportion of carbon left when the remains of the organism are examined provides an indication of the time elapsed since its death. This makes carbon an ideal dating method to date the age of bones or the remains of an organism. The carbon dating limit lies around 58, to 62, years.

The rate of creation of carbon appears to be roughly constant, as cross-checks of carbon dating with other dating methods show it gives consistent results. However, local eruptions of volcanoes or other events that give off large amounts of carbon dioxide can reduce local concentrations of carbon and give inaccurate dates.

The releases of carbon dioxide into the biosphere as a consequence of industrialization have also depressed the proportion of carbon by a few percent; conversely, the amount of carbon was increased by above-ground nuclear bomb tests that were conducted into the early s. Also, an increase in the solar wind or the Earth's magnetic field above the current value would depress the amount of carbon created in the atmosphere.

This involves inspection of a polished slice of a material to determine the density of "track" markings left in it by the spontaneous fission of uranium impurities. The uranium content of the sample has to be known, but that can be determined by placing a plastic film over the polished slice of the material, and bombarding it with slow neutrons.

This causes induced fission of U, as opposed to the spontaneous fission of U. The fission tracks produced by this process are recorded in the plastic film. The uranium content of the material can then be calculated from the number of tracks and the neutron flux. This scheme has application over a wide range of geologic dates. For dates up to a few million years micastektites glass fragments from volcanic eruptionsand meteorites are best used. Older materials can be dated using zirconapatitetitaniteepidote and garnet which have a variable amount of uranium content.

The technique has potential applications for detailing the thermal history of a deposit. The residence time of 36 Cl in the atmosphere is about 1 week. Thus, as an event marker of s water in soil and ground water, 36 Cl is also useful for dating waters less than 50 years before the present. Luminescence dating methods are not radiometric dating methods in that they do not rely on abundances of isotopes to calculate age. Instead, they are a consequence of background radiation on certain minerals.

Over time, ionizing radiation is absorbed by mineral grains in sediments and archaeological materials such as quartz and potassium feldspar. The radiation causes charge to remain within the grains in structurally unstable "electron traps". Exposure to sunlight or heat releases these charges, effectively "bleaching" the sample and resetting the clock to zero.

The trapped charge accumulates over time at a rate determined by the amount of background radiation at the location where the sample was buried.

Stimulating these mineral grains using either light optically stimulated luminescence or infrared stimulated luminescence dating or heat thermoluminescence dating causes a luminescence signal to be emitted as the stored unstable electron energy is released, the intensity of which varies depending on the amount of radiation absorbed during burial and specific properties of the mineral. These methods can be used to date the age of a sediment layer, as layers deposited on top would prevent the grains from being "bleached" and reset by sunlight.

Pottery shards can be dated to the last time they experienced significant heat, generally when they were fired in a kiln. Absolute radiometric dating requires a measurable fraction of parent nucleus to remain in the sample rock. For rocks dating back to the beginning of the solar system, this requires extremely long-lived parent isotopes, making measurement of such rocks' exact ages imprecise.

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To be able to distinguish the relative ages of rocks from such old material, and to get a better time resolution than that available from long-lived isotopes, short-lived isotopes that are no longer present in the rock can be used. At the beginning of the solar system, there were several relatively short-lived radionuclides like 26 Al, 60 Fe, 53 Mn, and I present within the solar nebula. These radionuclides-possibly produced by the explosion of a supernova-are extinct today, but their decay products can be detected in very old material, such as that which constitutes meteorites.

Many geological complications and measurement difficulties existed, but initial attempts at the method clearly demonstrated that the Earth was very old. In fact, the numbers that became available were significantly older than even some geologists were expecting - rather than hundreds of millions of years, which was the minimum age expected, the Earth's history was clearly at least billions of years long.

Radiometric dating provides numerical values for the age of an appropriate rock, usually expressed in millions of years. Therefore, by dating a series of rocks in a vertical succession of strata previously recognized with basic geologic principles see Stratigraphic principles and relative timeit can provide a numerical calibration for what would otherwise be only an ordering of events - i.

The integration of relative dating and radiometric dating has resulted in a series of increasingly precise "absolute" i. Given the background above, the information used for a geologic time scale can be related like this:. A continuous vertical stratigraphic section will provide the order of occurrence of events column 1 of Figure 2. These are summarized in terms of a "relative time scale" column 2 of Figure 2.

Geologists can refer to intervals of time as being "pre-first appearance of species A" or "during the existence of species A", or "after volcanic eruption 1" at least six subdivisions are possible in the example in Figure 2. For this type of "relative dating" to work it must be known that the succession of events is unique or at least that duplicate events are recognized - e. Unique events can be biological e. Ideally, geologists are looking for events that are unmistakably unique, in a consistent order, and of global extent in order to construct a geological time scale with global significance.

Some of these events do exist. For example, the boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods is recognized on the basis of the extinction of a large number of organisms globally including ammonites, dinosaurs, and othersthe first appearance of new types of organisms, the presence of geochemical anomalies notably iridiumand unusual types of minerals related to meteorite impact processes impact spherules and shocked quartz.

These types of distinctive events provide confirmation that the Earth's stratigraphy is genuinely successional on a global scale. Even without that knowledge, it is still possible to construct local geologic time scales. Although the idea that unique physical and biotic events are synchronous might sound like an "assumption", it is not. It can, and has been, tested in innumerable ways since the 19th century, in some cases by physically tracing distinct units laterally for hundreds or thousands of kilometres and looking very carefully to see if the order of events changes.

Geologists do sometimes find events that are "diachronous" i. Because any newly-studied locality will have independent fossil, superpositional, or radiometric data that have not yet been incorporated into the global geological time scale, all data types serve as both an independent test of each other on a local scaleand of the global geological time scale itself.

The test is more than just a "right" or "wrong" assessment, because there is a certain level of uncertainty in all age determinations. For example, an inconsistency may indicate that a particular geological boundary occurred 76 million years ago, rather than 75 million years ago, which might be cause for revising the age estimate, but does not make the original estimate flagrantly "wrong".

It depends upon the exact situation, and how much data are present to test hypotheses e. Whatever the situation, the current global geological time scale makes predictions about relationships between relative and absolute age-dating at a local scale, and the input of new data means the global geologic time scale is continually refined and is known with increasing precision.

This trend can be seen by looking at the history of proposed geologic time scales described in the first chapter of [Harland et al,p.

Radioactive Dating

The unfortunate part of the natural process of refinement of time scales is the appearance of circularity if people do not look at the source of the data carefully enough. Most commonly, this is characterised by oversimplified statements like:. Even some geologists have stated this misconception in slightly different words in seemingly authoritative works e.

When a geologist collects a rock sample for radiometric age dating, or collects a fossil, there are independent constraints on the relative and numerical age of the resulting data.

Stratigraphic position is an obvious one, but there are many others. There is no way for a geologist to choose what numerical value a radiometric date will yield, or what position a fossil will be found at in a stratigraphic section. Every piece of data collected like this is an independent check of what has been previously studied.

The data are determined by the rocksnot by preconceived notions about what will be found. Every time a rock is picked up it is a test of the predictions made by the current understanding of the geological time scale.

The time scale is refined to reflect the relatively few and progressively smaller inconsistencies that are found. This is not circularity, it is the normal scientific process of refining one's understanding with new data.

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It happens in all sciences. If an inconsistent data point is found, geologists ask the question: "Is this date wrong, or is it saying the current geological time scale is wrong?

However, this statistical likelihood is not assumed, it is testedusually by using other methods e. Geologists search for an explanation of the inconsistency, and will not arbitrarily decide that, "because it conflicts, the data must be wrong.

If it is a small but significant inconsistency, it could indicate that the geological time scale requires a small revision. This happens regularly. The continued revision of the time scale as a result of new data demonstrates that geologists are willing to question it and change it. The geological time scale is far from dogma. If the new data have a large inconsistency by "large" I mean orders of magnitudeit is far more likely to be a problem with the new data, but geologists are not satisfied until a specific geological explanation is found and tested.

An inconsistency often means something geologically interesting is happening, and there is always a tiny possibility that it could be the tip of a revolution in understanding about geological history.

Admittedly, this latter possibility is VERY unlikely. There is almost zero chance that the broad understanding of geological history e. The amount of data supporting that interpretation is immense, is derived from many fields and methods not only radiometric datingand a discovery would have to be found that invalidated practically all previous data in order for the interpretation to change greatly. So far, I know of no valid theory that explains how this could occur, let alone evidence in support of such a theory, although there have been highly fallacious attempts e.

It contains a mixture of minerals from a volcanic eruption and detrital mineral grains eroded from other, older rocks.

May 20,   Geologists often need to know the age of material that they find. They use absolute dating methods, sometimes called numerical dating, to give rocks an actual date, or date range, in number of years. This is different to relative dating, which only puts geological events in time order. Radiometric age dating techniques were used - Find a man in my area! Free to join to find a woman and meet a man online who is single and looking for you. If you are a middle-aged woman looking to have a good time dating woman half your age, this advertisement is for you. Men looking for a woman - Women looking for a man. Start studying Radiometric Dating. Learn vocabulary, terms, and more with flashcards, games, and other study tools. Search. Amounts of Carbon are not the same as they were before the flood. Now things born are not born with the right amount of Carbon, which its seem older then it really is. That does not measure age and some rocks.

If the age of this unit were not so crucial to important associated hominid fossils, it probably would not have been dated at all because of the potential problems. After some initial and prolonged troubles over many years, the bed was eventually dated successfully by careful sample preparation that eliminated the detrital minerals.

Lubenow's work is fairly unique in characterising the normal scientific process of refining a difficult date as an arbitrary and inappropriate "game", and documenting the history of the process in some detail, as if such problems were typical.

Another example is "John Woodmorappe's" paper on radiometric datingwhich adopts a "compilation" approach, and gives only superficial treatment to the individual dates. Among other problems documented in an FAQ by Steven Schimmrichmany of Woodmorappe's examples neglect the geological complexities that are expected to cause problems for some radiometrically-dated samples.

This section is important because it places a limit on the youngest age for a specific ammonite shell - Baculites reesidei - which is used as a zonal fossil in western North America.

It consistently occurs below the first occurrence of Bacultes jenseni and above the occurrence of Baculites cuneatus within the upper part of the Campanian, the second to last "stage" of the Cretaceous Period in the global geological time scale.

The biostratigraphic situation can be summarized as a vertically-stacked sequence of "zones" defined by the first appearance of each ammonite species:. About 40 of these ammonite zones are used to subdivide the upper part of the Cretaceous Period in this area.

Dinosaurs and many other types of fossils are also found in this interval, and in broad context it occurs shortly before the extinction of the dinosaurs, and the extinction of all ammonites. The Bearpaw Formation is a marine unit that occurs over much of Alberta and Saskatchewan, and it continues into Montana and North Dakota in the United States, although it adopts a different name in the U.

The numbers above are just summary values. Other examples yield similar results - i. The result? The results are therefore highly consistent given the analytical uncertainties in any measurement. Eberth and Braman described the vertebrate paleontology and sedimentology of the Judith River Formation, a dinosaur-bearing unit that occurs stratigraphically below the Baculites reesidei zone the Judith River Formation is below the Bearpaw Formation.

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It should therefore be older than the results from Baadsgaard et al. An ash bed near the top of the Judith River Fm. Again, this is compatible with the age determined for the Baculites reesidei zone and its relative stratigraphic position, and even with the relative position of the two samples within the same formation.

How do these dates compare to the then current geological time scale? Harland et al. Here are the numbers they applied to the geological boundaries in this interval, compared to the numbers in the newer studies:. As you can see, the numbers in the rightmost column are basically compatible. Skeptics of radiometric dating procedures sometimes claim these techniques should not work reliably, or only infrequently, but clearly the results are similar: for intervals that should be about million years old, radiometric dates do not yield for example or 30 million years, let alone years, years or 1 billion.

Most of the time, the technique works exceedingly well to a first approximation. However, there are some smaller differences. The date for the Baculites reesidei zone is at least 0. What to do? Well, standard scientific procedure is to collect more data to test the possible explanations - is it the time scale or the data that are incorrect? Obradovich has measured a large number of high-quality radiometric dates from the Cretaceous Period, and has revised the geological time scale for this interval.

Specifically, he proposes an age of This is completely compatible with the data in Baadsgaard et al. Skeptics of conventional geology might think scientists would expect, or at least prefer, every date to be perfectly consistent with the current geological time scale, but realistically, this is not how science works.

Radiometric age dating techniques were used

The age of a particular sample, and a particular geological time scale, only represents the current understanding, and science is a process of refinement of that understanding. In support of this pattern, there is an unmistakable trend of smaller and smaller revisions of the time scale as the dataset gets larger and more precise Harland et al. If something were seriously wrong with the current geologic time scale, one would expect inconsistencies to grow in number and severity, but they do not.

The same trend can be observed for other time periods. Palmer and Harland et al. The latter includes an excellent diagram summarizing comparisons between earlier time scales Harland et al. Sincethere have been still more revisions by other authors, such as Obradovich for the Cretaceous Period, and Gradstein et al.

As another example, Rogers et al. This is not uncommon. Besides the papers mentioned here, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of similar papers providing bracketing ranges for fossil occurrences.

Radiometric Dating and the Geological Time Scale

The synthesis of work like this by thousands of international researchers over many decades is what defines geological time scales in the first place refer to Harland et al. Although geologists can and do legitimately quibble over the exact age of a particular fossil or formation e. The data do not support such an interpretation. The methods work too well most of the time. In addition, evidence from other cts of geology e. Prior to the availability of radiometric dating, and even prior to evolutionary theory, the Earth was estimated to be at least hundreds of millions of years old see above.

Radiometric dating has simply made the estimates more precise, and extended it into rocks barren of fossils and other stratigraphic tools. The geological time scale and the techniques used to define it are not circular. They rely on the same scientific principles as are used to refine any scientific concept: testing hypotheses with data.

There are innumerable independent tests that can identify and resolve inconsistencies in the data. This makes the geological time scale no different from other cts of scientific study. For potential critics: Refuting the conventional geological time scale is not an exercise in collecting examples of the worst samples possible.

A critique of conventional geologic time scale should address the best and most consistent data available, and explain it with an alternative interpretation, because that is the data that actually matters to the current understanding of geologic time. Baadsgaard, H. Multimethod radiometric age for a bentonite near the top of the Baculites reesidei Zone of southwestern Saskatchewan Campanian-Maastrichtian stage boundary?

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Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, v. Eberth, D. Stratigraphy, sedimentology, and vertebrate paleontology of the Judith River Formation Campanian near Muddy Lake, west-central Saskatchewan. Bulletin of Canadian Petroleum Geology, v. Goodwin, M. Gradstein, F. A Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous time scale. IN: Bergren, W. Harland, W. A Geologic Time Scale: edition. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, p.

A Geologic Time Scale, edition. ISBN Harper, C.

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Relative age inference in paleontology. Lethaia, v. Lubenow, M. Baker Book House: Grand Rapids. Obradovich, J. A Cretaceous time scale.

IN: Caldwell, W.

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Evolution of the Western Interior Basin. Geological Association of Canada, Special Paper 39, p. Palmer, Allison R. Geology, v. See archived copy instead. Rastall, R. Encyclopaedia Britannica 10, p. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. Rogers, R.

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