7.2: Absolute Dating

Dating , in geology , determining a chronology or calendar of events in the history of Earth , using to a large degree the evidence of organic evolution in the sedimentary rocks accumulated through geologic time in marine and continental environments. To date past events, processes, formations, and fossil organisms, geologists employ a variety of techniques. These include some that establish a relative chronology in which occurrences can be placed in the correct sequence relative to one another or to some known succession of events. Radiometric dating and certain other approaches are used to provide absolute chronologies in terms of years before the present. The two approaches are often complementary, as when a sequence of occurrences in one context can be correlated with an absolute chronlogy elsewhere. Local relationships on a single outcrop or archaeological site can often be interpreted to deduce the sequence in which the materials were assembled. This then can be used to deduce the sequence of events and processes that took place or the history of that brief period of time as recorded in the rocks or soil.

Geologic Time Scales

To describe the geology and history of life on earth, scientists have developed the geological time scale. Geological Time Scale. The geological time scale measures time on a scale involving four main units:. The division of time units in the geological time scale is usually based on the occurrence of significant geological events e. As such, the geological time categories do not usually consist of a uniform length of time.

Relative dating utilizes six fundamental principles to determine the relative will be deposited in all directions until it thins or fades into a different sediment type.

Most of these subdivisions are recognized globally on the basis of their relative position in the Earth’s stratigraphy and their fossil content. These are most commonly obtained by radiometric dating methods performed on appropriate rock types. The time scale at left is both a reference and a key to the display cases at the museum. Note that in the United States it is common to break the Carboniferous into two periods, the Pennsylvanian and the Mississippian, as is done in our museum.

The Museum thanks Dr. Andrew MacRae for the use of the time scale image and the short essay below. The two types of geologic time are analogous to the difference between “lunchtime” “relative time” and the numerical time on a clock, like pm to pm “absolute time”. Relative time is the physical subdivision of the rocks found in the Earth’s geology and the time and order of events they represent.

Absolute time is the measurement taken from the same rocks to determine the amount of time that has expired. The scale is broken in the Precambrian because this period is extremely long in duration it extends from million years ago to over 4.


There are two types of age determinations. Geologists in the late 18th and early 19th century studied rock layers and the fossils in them to determine relative age. William Smith was one of the most important scientists from this time who helped to develop knowledge of the succession of different fossils by studying their distribution through the sequence of sedimentary rocks in southern England.

Fossils from the Koobi Fora Geologic Formation of the Lake Turkana Consider the age and different species of fossils found in the area.

The Principle of Superposition tells us that deeper layers of rock are older than shallower layers Relative dating utilizes six fundamental principles to determine the relative age of a formation or event. This follows due to the fact that sedimentary rock is produced from the gradual accumulation of sediment on the surface. Therefore newer sediment is continually deposited on top of previously deposited or older sediment. In other words, as sediment fills a depositional basins we would expect the upper most surface of the sediment to be parallel to the horizon.

Subsequent layers would follow the same pattern. As sediment weathers and erodes from its source, and as long as it is does not encounter any physical barriers to its movement, the sediment will be deposited in all directions until it thins or fades into a different sediment type. For purposes of relative dating this principle is used to identify faults and erosional features within the rock record. The principle of cross-cutting states that any geologic feature that crosses other layers or rock must be younger then the material it cuts across.

Using this principle any fault or igneous intrusion must be younger than all material it or layers it crosses. Once a rock is lithified no other material can be incorporated within its internal structure. In order for any material to be included within in the rock it must have been present at the time the rock was lithified.

For example, in order to get a pebble inside an igneous rock it must be incorporated when the igneous rock is still molten– such as when lava flows over the surface.

Relative and absolute ages in the histories of Earth and the Moon: The Geologic Time Scale

Geologists do not use carbon-based radiometric dating to determine the age of rocks. Carbon dating only works for objects that are younger than about 50, years, and most rocks of interest are older than that. Carbon dating is used by archeologists to date trees, plants, and animal remains; as well as human artifacts made from wood and leather; because these items are generally younger than 50, years. Carbon is found in different forms in the environment — mainly in the stable form of carbon and the unstable form of carbon Over time, carbon decays radioactively and turns into nitrogen.

There are two types of age determinations. Geologists in the late 18th and early 19th century studied rock layers and the fossils in them to determine relative age​.

Geologic time covers the whole sweep of earth’s history, from how and when the earth first formed, to everything that has happened on, in, and to the planet since then, right up to now. Geologists analyze geologic time in two different ways: in terms of relative geologic age, and in terms of absolute or numeric geologic age. The combination of these two types of geologic ages makes a complete record of earth’s geologic history in terms of the order of events and in terms of how many years ago each event occurred.

Relative geologic age refers to the order in which geologic events occurred. Relative geologic age is established, based on such evidence as the order in which layers of sediment are stacked, with the younger layer originally on top. By using the principles of relative geologic age, the sequence of geologic events — what happened first, what happened next, what happened last — can be established. Absolute geologic age refers to how long ago a geologic event occurred or a rock formed, in numeric terms, such as

Dating Fossils in the Rocks

Few discussions in geology can occur without reference to geologic time. Geologic time is often dicussed in two forms:. Think of relative time as physical subdivisions of the rock found in the Earth’s stratigraphy, and absolute time as the measurements taken upon those to determine the actual time which has expired. Absolute time measurements can be used to calibrate the relative time scale, producing an integrated geologic or “geochronologic” time scale.

It is important to realize that with new information about subdivision or correlation of relative time, or new measurements of absolute time, the dates applied to the time scale can and do change.

To interpret stratigraphic relationships between geological units (types and layers two geologic features intersect, the one that cuts across the other is younger.

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. By measuring the amount of radioactive decay of a radioactive isotope with a known half-life , geologists can establish the absolute age of the parent material. A number of radioactive isotopes are used for this purpose, and depending on the rate of decay, are used for dating different geological periods.

Geologic Age Dating Explained

The Geologic Time Scale, as shown above, documents intervals of geologic time relative to one another, and has been continuously developed and updated over the last two centuries. In addition to the relative dating of periods in Earth’s history for which we have rocks preserved, geologists are now able to assign absolute age dates to critical intervals. In the Geologic Time Scale, time is generally divided on the basis of the earth’s biotic composition, with the Phanerozoic Eon i.

an erosional surface between different rock types. What is the name for an erosion surface that separates two sets of sedimentary layers with non-parallel.

Stratigraphy is the study of rock layers strata deposited in the earth. It is one of the most challenging of geologic subdisciplines, comparable to an exacting form of detective work, yet it is also one of the most important branches of study in the geologic sciences. Earth ‘s history, quite literally, is written on the strata of its rocks, and from observing these layers, geologists have been able to form an idea of the various phases in that long history.

Naturally, information is more readily discernible about the more recent phases, though even in studying these phases, it is possible to be misled by gaps in the rock record, known as unconformities. Historical geology , the study of Earth’s physical history, is one of the two principal branches of geology, the other being physical geology, or the study of Earth’s physical components and the forces that have shaped them. Among the principal subdisciplines of historical geology is stratigraphy, the study of rock layers, which are called strata or, in the singular form, a stratum.

Other important subdisciplines include geochronology, the study of Earth’s age and the dating of specific formations in terms of geologic time; sedimentology, the study and interpretation of sediments, including sedimentary processes and formations; paleontology, the study of fossilized plants and animals; and paleoecology, the study of the relationship between prehistoric plants and animals and their environments.

Geological time

Geologic history is the key to this Guide and to understanding the story recorded in the rocks of the Midwest. By knowing more about the geologic history of our area, you can better understand the type of rocks that are in your own backyard and why they are there. We will look at the history of the Midwest as it unfolds: as a series of major events over the past one billion years that created and shaped the area.

These events will act as the framework for the topics to follow and will shed light on why our region looks the way it does! The geologic time scale is an important tool used to portray the history of the Earth—a standard timeline used to describe the age of rocks and fossils, and the events that formed them. Little is known about this time period since very few fossils or unaltered rocks have survived.

Geologists generally know the age of a rock by determining the age of the upon two fundamentally different ways of telling time: relative and absolute. Of the three basic rock types, igneous rocks are most suited for radiometric dating.

Stephen A. Relative time does not tell how old something is, all we know is the sequence of events. Thus we can say how old something is. By carefully digging, we have found that each trash pit shows a sequence of layers. Although the types of trash in each pit is quite variable, each layer has a distinctive kind of trash that distinguishes it from other layers in the pits.

What can we say and learn from these excavations? Relative age of trash layers – Because of the shape of the pits the oldest layers of trash occur below younger layers i. Thus the relative age of the trash layers is, in order from youngest to oldest.

Geological Dating

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? Geologic age dating—assigning an age to materials—is an entire discipline of its own.

Historical geology, the study of Earth’s physical history, is one of the two Earth scientists working in the area of lithostratigraphy identify various types of layers, Relative dating methods assign an age relative to that of other items, whereas​.

The oldest mineral grains yet identified on Earth are about 4. Rocks brought back from the moon by astronauts, and meteorites that have fallen to Earth, are about 4. Because the moon, Earth, and the meteors probably formed at the same time concurrently with the rest of the solar system , we can conclude that the Earth itself is about 4. How do we know that the Morton gneiss is older or younger than other rocks?

How do we know the age of any rock? Using relative age, geologists can show that a particular rock unit is older than some other rock unit without knowing how old either one is in calendar years. They understand the processes by which rocks form, and have developed logical rules based on observable field relationships to establish the relative ages among rock units.


Earth is 4. To try to put this into perspective, if the average human life-span is 80 years, then the earth has been around for 57,, lifetimes. Constantly writing out millions and billions of years is time-consuming, so when geologists talk about ages, they use a few abbreviations.

between strata and younger igneous or metamorphic rock. Page Unconformity. • The surface between two different sedimentary strata. It.

In geology, we can refer to “relative time” and “absolute time” in addressing the age of geologic formations or rock units. Chronostratigraphy is the branch of geology that studies the relative time relations and ages of rock units. In chronostratigraphy, we are concerned with the age relations between rock bodies irrespective of their absolute numerical age.

Fossils provide us with a rapid and accurate means of determining the relative age of rocks in a stratigraphic sequence. We cannot assign an absolute age to the fossils until we have a time scale. Geochronology is that branch of stratigraphy concerned with the dating and subdivision of geologic time and the establishment of time scales.

A Brief History of Geologic Time