Geologic Age Dating Explained - Kids Discover
There are two basic approaches: relative age dating, and absolute age dating. Here is an easy-to understand analogy for your students. Relative dating is the science of determining the relative order of past events without Prior to the discovery of radiometric dating in the early 20th century, which provided a means Geologists still use the following principles today as a means to provide information about geologic history and the timing of geologic events. Rock record provides evidence of geological events and life forms of the past. Relative dating determines the sequence in which events occurred, but not how long ago they Scientists use radioactive decay to determine the age of the rock.
Cross-cutting relationships[ edit ] Cross-cutting relations can be used to determine the relative ages of rock strata and other geological structures. The principle of cross-cutting relationships pertains to the formation of faults and the age of the sequences through which they cut.
Faults are younger than the rocks they cut; accordingly, if a fault is found that penetrates some formations but not those on top of it, then the formations that were cut are older than the fault, and the ones that are not cut must be younger than the fault. Finding the key bed in these situations may help determine whether the fault is a normal fault or a thrust fault. For example, in sedimentary rocks, it is common for gravel from an older formation to be ripped up and included in a newer layer.
A similar situation with igneous rocks occurs when xenoliths are found. These foreign bodies are picked up as magma or lava flows, and are incorporated, later to cool in the matrix. As a result, xenoliths are older than the rock which contains them. Original horizontality[ edit ] The principle of original horizontality states that the deposition of sediments occurs as essentially horizontal beds. Observation of modern marine and non-marine sediments in a wide variety of environments supports this generalization although cross-bedding is inclined, the overall orientation of cross-bedded units is horizontal.
This is because it is not possible for a younger layer to slip beneath a layer previously deposited. This principle allows sedimentary layers to be viewed as a form of vertical time line, a partial or complete record of the time elapsed from deposition of the lowest layer to deposition of the highest bed.
Geologic Age Dating Explained
As organisms exist at the same time period throughout the world, their presence or sometimes absence may be used to provide a relative age of the formations in which they are found. Based on principles laid out by William Smith almost a hundred years before the publication of Charles Darwin 's theory of evolutionthe principles of succession were developed independently of evolutionary thought.
The principle becomes quite complex, however, given the uncertainties of fossilization, the localization of fossil types due to lateral changes in habitat facies change in sedimentary strataand that not all fossils may be found globally at the same time. As a result, rocks that are otherwise similar, but are now separated by a valley or other erosional feature, can be assumed to be originally continuous. Layers of sediment do not extend indefinitely; rather, the limits can be recognized and are controlled by the amount and type of sediment available and the size and shape of the sedimentary basin.
Sediment will continue to be transported to an area and it will eventually be deposited. However, the layer of that material will become thinner as the amount of material lessens away from the source. Often, coarser-grained material can no longer be transported to an area because the transporting medium has insufficient energy to carry it to that location.
The narrower a range of time that an animal lived, the better it is as an index of a specific time. No bones about it, fossils are important age markers. But the most accurate forms of absolute age dating are radiometric methods. This method works because some unstable radioactive isotopes of some elements decay at a known rate into daughter products.
This rate of decay is called a half-life. Half-life simply means the amount of time it takes for half of a remaining particular isotope to decay to a daughter product. Good discussion from the US Geological Survey: There are a couple catches, of course. Not all rocks have radioactive elements. Sedimentary rocks in particular are notoriously radioactive-free zones.
So to date those, geologists look for layers like volcanic ash that might be sandwiched between the sedimentary layers, and that tend to have radioactive elements. You might have noticed that many of the oldest age dates come from a mineral called zircon.
Each radioactive isotope works best for particular applications.
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The half-life of carbon 14, for example, is 5, years. On the other hand, the half-life of the isotope potassium 40 as it decays to argon is 1. We have no idea how much older thing B is, we just know that it's older.
That's why geologic time is usually diagramed in tall columnar diagrams like this. Just like a stack of sedimentary rocks, time is recorded in horizontal layers, with the oldest layer on the bottom, superposed by ever-younger layers, until you get to the most recent stuff on the tippy top. On Earth, we have a very powerful method of relative age dating: Paleontologists have examined layered sequences of fossil-bearing rocks all over the world, and noted where in those sequences certain fossils appear and disappear.
When you find the same fossils in rocks far away, you know that the sediments those rocks must have been laid down at the same time. The more fossils you find at a location, the more you can fine-tune the relative age of this layer versus that layer. Of course, this only works for rocks that contain abundant fossils. Conveniently, the vast majority of rocks exposed on the surface of Earth are less than a few hundred million years old, which corresponds to the time when there was abundant multicellular life here.
Look closely at the Geologic Time Scale chartand you might notice that the first three columns don't even go back million years. That last, pink Precambrian column, with its sparse list of epochal names, covers the first four billion years of Earth's history, more than three quarters of Earth's existence.
Most Earth geologists don't talk about that much. Paleontologists have used major appearances and disappearances of different kinds of fossils on Earth to divide Earth's history -- at least the part of it for which there are lots of fossils -- into lots of eras and periods and epochs.
When you talk about something happening in the Precambrian or the Cenozoic or the Silurian or Eocene, you are talking about something that happened when a certain kind of fossil life was present. Major boundaries in Earth's time scale happen when there were major extinction events that wiped certain kinds of fossils out of the fossil record.
This is called the chronostratigraphic time scale -- that is, the division of time the "chrono-" part according to the relative position in the rock record that's "stratigraphy". The science of paleontology, and its use for relative age dating, was well-established before the science of isotopic age-dating was developed.
Nowadays, age-dating of rocks has established pretty precise numbers for the absolute ages of the boundaries between fossil assemblages, but there's still uncertainty in those numbers, even for Earth. In fact, I have sitting in front of me on my desk a two-volume work on The Geologic Time Scalefully pages devoted to an eight-year effort to fine-tune the correlation between the relative time scale and the absolute time scale.
The Geologic Time Scale is not light reading, but I think that every Earth or space scientist should have a copy in his or her library -- and make that the latest edition. In the time since the previous geologic time scale was published inmost of the boundaries between Earth's various geologic ages have shifted by a million years or so, and one of them the Carnian-Norian boundary within the late Triassic epoch has shifted by 12 million years.
With this kind of uncertainty, Felix Gradstein, editor of the Geologic Time Scale, suggests that we should stick with relative age terms when describing when things happened in Earth's history emphasis mine: For clarity and precision in international communication, the rock record of Earth's history is subdivided into a "chronostratigraphic" scale of standardized global stratigraphic units, such as "Devonian", "Miocene", "Zigzagiceras zigzag ammonite zone", or "polarity Chron C25r".
Unlike the continuous ticking clock of the "chronometric" scale measured in years before the year ADthe chronostratigraphic scale is based on relative time units in which global reference points at boundary stratotypes define the limits of the main formalized units, such as "Permian".
The chronostratigraphic scale is an agreed convention, whereas its calibration to linear time is a matter for discovery or estimation.
We can all agree to the extent that scientists agree on anything to the fossil-derived scale, but its correspondence to numbers is a "calibration" process, and we must either make new discoveries to improve that calibration, or estimate as best we can based on the data we have already. To show you how this calibration changes with time, here's a graphic developed from the previous version of The Geologic Time Scale, comparing the absolute ages of the beginning and end of the various periods of the Paleozoic era between and I tip my hat to Chuck Magee for the pointer to this graphic.
Fossils give us this global chronostratigraphic time scale on Earth. On other solid-surfaced worlds -- which I'll call "planets" for brevity, even though I'm including moons and asteroids -- we haven't yet found a single fossil. Something else must serve to establish a relative time sequence. That something else is impact craters. Earth is an unusual planet in that it doesn't have very many impact craters -- they've mostly been obliterated by active geology.
Venus, Io, Europa, Titan, and Triton have a similar problem. On almost all the other solid-surfaced planets in the solar system, impact craters are everywhere. The Moon, in particular, is saturated with them. We use craters to establish relative age dates in two ways.
If an impact event was large enough, its effects were global in reach. For example, the Imbrium impact basin on the Moon spread ejecta all over the place. Any surface that has Imbrium ejecta lying on top of it is older than Imbrium. Any craters or lava flows that happened inside the Imbrium basin or on top of Imbrium ejecta are younger than Imbrium.
Imbrium is therefore a stratigraphic marker -- something we can use to divide the chronostratigraphic history of the Moon. Apollo 15 site is inside the unit and the Apollo 17 landing site is just outside the boundary.
There are some uncertainties in the positions of the boundaries of the units.
The other way we use craters to age-date surfaces is simply to count the craters. At its simplest, surfaces with more craters have been exposed to space for longer, so are older, than surfaces with fewer craters.