This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Despite seeming like a relatively stable place, the Earth’s surface has changed dramatically over the past 4. Mountains have been built and eroded, continents and oceans have moved great distances, and the Earth has fluctuated from being extremely cold and almost completely covered with ice to being very warm and ice-free. These changes typically occur so slowly that they are barely detectable over the span of a human life, yet even at this instant, the Earth’s surface is moving and changing. As these changes have occurred, organisms have evolved, and remnants of some have been preserved as fossils. A fossil can be studied to determine what kind of organism it represents, how the organism lived, and how it was preserved.
Radiometric Dating and the Geological Time Scale
September 30, by Beth Geiger. Dinosaurs disappeared about 65 million years ago. That corn cob found in an ancient Native American fire pit is 1, years old. How do scientists actually know these ages?
Originally, fossils only provided us with relative ages because, although early paleontologists understood biological succession, they did not know the absolute ages of the different organisms. It was only in the early part of the 20th century, when isotopic dating methods were first applied, that it became possible to discover the absolute ages of the rocks containing fossils. In most cases, we cannot use isotopic techniques to directly date fossils or the sedimentary rocks in which they are found, but we can constrain their ages by dating igneous rocks that cut across sedimentary rocks, or volcanic ash layers that lie within sedimentary layers.
Isotopic dating of rocks, or the minerals within them, is based upon the fact that we know the decay rates of certain unstable isotopes of elements, and that these decay rates have been constant throughout geological time. It is also based on the premise that when the atoms of an element decay within a mineral or a rock, they remain trapped in the mineral or rock, and do not escape. It has a half-life of 1.
Most absolute age determinations in geology rely on radiometric methods. The earth is billions of years old. The main condition for the method is that the production rate of isotopes stays the same through ages, i.
This “radiometric” approach has superseded all other techniques for determining absolute ages. Radioactive Clock. The vast majority of atoms .
Radiometric dating , radioactive dating or radioisotope dating is a technique which is used to date materials such as rocks or carbon , in which trace radioactive impurities were selectively incorporated when they were formed. The method compares the abundance of a naturally occurring radioactive isotope within the material to the abundance of its decay products, which form at a known constant rate of decay.
Together with stratigraphic principles , radiometric dating methods are used in geochronology to establish the geologic time scale. By allowing the establishment of geological timescales, it provides a significant source of information about the ages of fossils and the deduced rates of evolutionary change. Radiometric dating is also used to date archaeological materials, including ancient artifacts.
Different methods of radiometric dating vary in the timescale over which they are accurate and the materials to which they can be applied. All ordinary matter is made up of combinations of chemical elements , each with its own atomic number , indicating the number of protons in the atomic nucleus.
Basic principles for relative geologic dating
An oversight in a radioisotope dating technique used to date everything from meteorites to geologic samples means that scientists have likely overestimated the age of many samples, according to new research from North Carolina State University. To conduct radioisotope dating, scientists evaluate the concentration of isotopes in a material. The number of protons in an atom determines which element it is, while the number of neutrons determines which isotope it is.
For example, strontium has 38 protons and 48 neutrons, whereas strontium has 38 protons and 49 neutrons. Radioactive elements, such as rubidium but not strontium or strontium , decay over time. By evaluating the concentrations of all of these isotopes in a rock sample, scientists can determine what its original make-up of strontium and rubidium were.
The halflife of this decay is only years. Even using pre-concentration techniques and highly sensitive detectors, the practical range of the dating method does.
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. It is these highly consistent and reliable samples, rather than the tricky ones, that have to be falsified for “young Earth” theories to have any scientific plausibility, not to mention the need to falsify huge amounts of evidence from other techniques.
The good dates are confirmed using at least two different methods, ideally involving multiple independent labs for each method to cross-check results.
Relative dating techniques provide geologists abundant evidence of the incredible vastness of geologic time and ancient age of many rocks and formations.
Slideshows Videos Audio. Here of some of the well-tested methods of dating used in the study of early humans: Potassium-argon dating , Argon-argon dating , Carbon or Radiocarbon , and Uranium series. All of these methods measure the amount of radioactive decay of chemical elements; the decay occurs in a consistent manner, like a clock, over long periods of time. Thermo-luminescence , Optically stimulated luminescence , and Electron spin resonance.
All of these methods measure the amount of electrons that get absorbed and trapped inside a rock or tooth over time. Since animal species change over time, the fauna can be arranged from younger to older. At some sites, animal fossils can be dated precisely by one of these other methods. For sites that cannot be readily dated, the animal species found there can be compared to well-dated species from other sites.
In this way, sites that do not have radioactive or other materials for dating can be given a reliable age estimate. Molecular clock. This method compares the amount of genetic difference between living organisms and computes an age based on well-tested rates of genetic mutation over time.
7.2: Absolute Dating
While true, fossils are buried with plenty of clues that allow us to reconstruct their history. In , in Ethiopia’s Afar region, our research team discovered a rare fossil jawbone belonging to our genus, Homo. To solve the mystery of when this human ancestor lived on Earth, we looked to nearby volcanic ash layers for answers. Working in this part of Ethiopia is quite the adventure. It is a region where 90 degrees Fahrenheit seems cool, dust is a given, water is not, and a normal daily commute includes racing ostriches and braking for camels as we forge paths through the desert.
This section discusses the methods geologists use to determine how old a fossil or rock is. Relative age-dating methods determine when an event happened compared to another event. Absolute age-dating tells how long ago an event occurred. Relative age-dating involves comparing a rock layer or rock structure with other near-by layers or structures. Using the principles of superposition and cross-cutting relationships , and structures such as unconformities , one can determine the order of geological events.
Examples are given below. This is called the principle of superposition. Flat-lying sedimentary layers from the Appalachian Plateaus province of southwestern Virginia illustrate the principle of superposition. The oldest layers are at the bottom. The youngest layer is at the top. Cross-cutting Relationships. These relationships are called cross-cutting relationships. Highland County igneous rock intrudes sedimentary rock Photograph by Stan Johnson.
Dating Fossils in the Rocks
R J Pankhurst. Physics Education , Volume 15 , Number 6. Get permission to re-use this article. Create citation alert. Buy this article in print. Journal RSS feed.
Radiometric dating techiques were pioneered by Bertram the absolute age of rocks and other geological features.
Since the early twentieth century scientists have found ways to accurately measure geological time. The discovery of radioactivity in uranium by the French physicist, Henri Becquerel , in paved the way of measuring absolute time. Shortly after Becquerel’s find, Marie Curie , a French chemist, isolated another highly radioactive element, radium.
The realisation that radioactive materials emit rays indicated a constant change of those materials from one element to another. The New Zealand physicist Ernest Rutherford , suggested in that the exact age of a rock could be measured by means of radioactivity. For the first time he was able to exactly measure the age of a uranium mineral. When Rutherford announced his findings it soon became clear that Earth is millions of years old. These scientists and many more after them discovered that atoms of uranium, radium and several other radioactive materials are unstable and disintegrate spontaneously and consistently forming atoms of different elements and emitting radiation, a form of energy in the process.
The original atom is referred to as the parent and the following decay products are referred to as the daughter. For example: after the neutron of a rubidiumatom ejects an electron, it changes into a strontium atom, leaving an additional proton. Carbon is a very special element.
Geologic Age Dating Explained
Lake Turkana has a geologic history that favored the preservation of fossils. Scientists suggest that the lake as it appears today has only been around for the past , years. The current environment around Lake Turkana is very dry. Over the course of time, though, the area has seen many changes.
There are many different dating methods that can be used to to a particular geological period based on the fossil assemblages present within.
The work of geologists is to tell the true story of Earth’s history—more precisely, a story of Earth’s history that is ever truer. A hundred years ago, we had little idea of the story’s length—we had no good yardstick for time. Today, with the help of isotopic dating methods, we can determine the ages of rocks nearly as well as we map the rocks themselves.
For that, we can thank radioactivity, discovered at the turn of the last century. A hundred years ago, our ideas about the ages of rocks and the age of the Earth were vague. But obviously, rocks are very old things. Judging from the number of rocks there are, plus the imperceptible rates of the processes forming them—erosion, burial, fossilization , uplift—the geologic record must represent untold millions of years of time. It is that insight, first expressed in , that made James Hutton the father of geology.
So we knew about ” deep time ,” but exploring it was frustrating.
How Do Scientists Date Fossils?
Earth is about 4. Geologists divide this age into major and minor units of time that describe the kinds of geological processes and life forms that existed in them. Earth’s geologic record was formed by constant change, just like those that occur routinely today. Though some events were catastrophic, much of Earth’s geology was influenced by normal weather, erosion, and other processes spread over very long geologic ages.
Accurate dating of the geologic ages is fundamental to the study of geology and paleontology, and provides important context to the life sciences, meteorology, oceanography, geophysics, and hydrology. In the mid-seventeenth century, James Ussher — , the Archbishop of Ireland, compiled a chronology of Earth by adding up the generations named in the Bible.
Geochronology is the science of determining the age of rocks , fossils , and sediments using signatures inherent in the rocks themselves. Absolute geochronology can be accomplished through radioactive isotopes , whereas relative geochronology is provided by tools such as palaeomagnetism and stable isotope ratios. By combining multiple geochronological and biostratigraphic indicators the precision of the recovered age can be improved. Geochronology is different in application from biostratigraphy, which is the science of assigning sedimentary rocks to a known geological period via describing, cataloging and comparing fossil floral and faunal assemblages.
Biostratigraphy does not directly provide an absolute age determination of a rock, but merely places it within an interval of time at which that fossil assemblage is known to have coexisted. Both disciplines work together hand in hand, however, to the point where they share the same system of naming strata rock layers and the time spans utilized to classify sublayers within a stratum. The science of geochronology is the prime tool used in the discipline of chronostratigraphy , which attempts to derive absolute age dates for all fossil assemblages and determine the geologic history of the Earth and extraterrestrial bodies.