Radiometric Dating and the Geological Time Scale
Relative dating methods assign an age relative to that of other items, whereas absolute dating determines age in actual years or millions of years. 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. of the time scale, their stratigraphy, life forms and other useful bits of information. This page is to this topic. Lectures will focus on absolute dating techniques.
Geochronometry | Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy
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.
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: 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 rocks, not 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. It happens in all sciences. If an inconsistent data point is found, geologists ask the question: However, this statistical likelihood is not assumed, it is tested, usually 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.
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.
When Radiometric Dating "Just Works" or not A poor example There are many situations where radiometric dating is not possible, or where a dating attempt will be fraught with difficulty.
This is the inevitable nature of rocks that have experienced millions of years of history: The real question is what happens when conditions are ideal, versus when they are marginal, because ideal samples should give the most reliable dates.
If there are good reasons to expect problems with a sample, it is hardly surprising if there are! It contains a mixture of minerals from a volcanic eruption and detrital mineral grains eroded from other, older 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. A good example By contrast, the example presented here is a geologically simple situation -- it consists of several primary i.
It demonstrates how consistent radiometric data can be when the rocks are more suitable for dating. For most geological samples like this, radiometric dating "just works". Consider this stratigraphic section from the Bearpaw Formation of Saskatchewan, Canada Baadsgaard et al.
Modified from Baadsgaard et al. The section is measured in metres, starting with 0m at the bottom oldest.
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 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.
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?
Here are the numbers they applied to the geological boundaries in this interval, compared to the numbers in the newer studies: Comparison of newer data with the Harland et al. 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: 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. 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. Conclusions 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.
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. The same rock formation also contains a type of trilobite that was known to live to million years ago. Since the rock formation contains both types of fossils the ago of the rock formation must be in the overlapping date range of to million years. Studying the layers of rock or strata can also be useful. Layers of rock are deposited sequentially.
If a layer of rock containing the fossil is higher up in the sequence that another layer, you know that layer must be younger in age. This can often be complicated by the fact that geological forces can cause faulting and tilting of rocks. Absolute Dating Absolute dating is used to determine a precise age of a rock or fossil through radiometric dating methods. This uses radioactive minerals that occur in rocks and fossils almost like a geological clock. So, often layers of volcanic rocks above and below the layers containing fossils can be dated to provide a date range for the fossil containing rocks.
The atoms in some chemical elements have different forms, called isotopes. These isotopes break down at a constant rate over time through radioactive decay. It is not a trivial task! Starting the Radiometric Clocks 1. Living organisms continually exchange carbon with the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis. When the organism dies, however, exchange of carbon ceases and the carbon present in the organism becomes isolated.
Dating Fossils – How Are Fossils Dated?
This event death of the organism marks the effective starting of the C 14 clock. One of the most common types of material used in C 14 dating is charcoal e.
These rocks form by the cooling and crystallization of hot silicate liquids magma or lava. As cooling proceeds from high temperatures ca. A growing mineral may trap small amounts of a radioactive isotope within its crystal structure. When this occurs, the radioactive atoms become effectively isolated or trapped.
Subsequent disintegration will produce daughter atoms replacing the original radioactive parents. In many respects, igneous rocks are the easiest to date because the starting of the clocks are unambiguous. Sedimentary rocks are, to a large degree, made from fragments of pre-existing rocks that have been broken, weathered, transported and ultimately deposited in ocean basins.