Different radiometric dating methods

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.

Carbon is a very special element. In combination with hydrogen it forms a component of all organic compounds and is therefore fundamental to life. Libby of the University of Chicago predicted the existence of carbon before it was actually detected and formulated a hypothesis that radiocarbon might exist in living matter. Willard Libby and his colleague Ernest Anderson showed that methane collected from sewage works had measurable radiocarbon activity whereas methane produced from petroleum did not.

Perseverance over three years of secret research to develop the radiocarbon method came into fruition and in Libby received the Nobel Prize for chemistry for turning his vision into an invaluable tool. Carbon has three naturally occurring isotopes , with atoms of the same atomic number but different atomic weights. They are 12 C, 13 C and 14 C. C being the symbol for carbon and the isotopes having atomic weights 12, 13 and The three isotopes don't occur equally either, The radiocarbon dating method is based on the rate of decay of the radioactive or unstable 14 C which is formed in the upper atmosphere through the effect of cosmic ray neutrons upon nitrogen The reaction is as follows: After formation the three carbon isotopes combine with oxygen to form carbon dioxide.

The carbon dioxide mixes throughout the atmosphere, dissolves in the oceans, and via photosynthesis enters the food chain to become part of all plants and animals. In principle the uptake rate of 14 C by animals is in equilibrium with the atmosphere. As soon as a plant or animal dies, they stop the metabolic function of carbon uptake and with no replenishment of radioactive carbon, the amount of 14 C in their tissues starts to reduce as the 14 C atoms decay.

Libby and his colleagues first discovered that this decay occurs at a constant rate. They found that after years, half the 14 C in the original sample will have decayed and after another years, half of that remaining material will have decayed, and so on. This became known as the Libby half-life. 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 strontium , with a half-life of 50 billion years. This scheme is used to date old igneous and metamorphic rocks , and has also been used to date lunar samples.

Radiometric dating

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 sediments , from which their ratios are measured. The scheme has a range of several hundred thousand years.

A related method is ionium—thorium dating , which measures the ratio of ionium thorium to thorium in ocean sediment. Radiocarbon dating is also simply called Carbon dating. Carbon is a radioactive isotope of carbon, with a half-life of 5, years, [25] [26] which is very short compared with the above isotopes and 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. A carbon-based life form acquires carbon during its lifetime. Plants acquire it through photosynthesis , and 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.


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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 micas , tektites glass fragments from volcanic eruptions , and meteorites are best used. Older materials can be dated using zircon , apatite , titanite , epidote 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.


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  • 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.

    Radiometric Dating

    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. 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. By measuring the decay products of extinct radionuclides with a mass spectrometer and using isochronplots, it is possible to determine relative ages of different events in the early history of the solar system.

    Dating methods based on extinct radionuclides can also be calibrated with the U-Pb method to give absolute ages. Thus both the approximate age and a high time resolution can be obtained. Generally a shorter half-life leads to a higher time resolution at the expense of timescale.

    The iodine-xenon chronometer [32] is an isochron technique. There are three important things to note about these results. First, each age is based on numerous measurements; laboratory errors, had there been any, would be readily apparent. Second, ages were measured on two very different minerals, sanidine and biotite, from several of the ash beds.

    Third, the radiometric ages agree, within analytical error, with the relative positions of the dated ash beds as determined by the geologic mapping and the fossil assemblages; that is, the ages get older from top to bottom as they should. Finally, the inferred age of the shocked quartz, as determined from the age of the melted feldspar in the Manson impact structure Meteorites, most of which are fragments of asteroids, are very interesting objects to study because they provide important evidence about the age, composition, and history of the early solar system.

    There are many types of meteorites. Some are from primitive asteroids whose material is little modified since they formed from the early solar nebula. Others are from larger asteroids that got hot enough to melt and send lava flows to the surface. A few are even from the Moon and Mars.

    The most primitive type of meteorites are called chondrites, because they contain little spheres of olivine crystals known as chondrules. Because of their importance, meteorites have been extensively dated radiometrically; the vast majority appear to be 4. Some meteorites, because of their mineralogy, can be dated by more than one radiometric dating technique, which provides scientists with a powerful check of the validity of the results. The results from three meteorites are shown in Table 1. Many more, plus a discussion of the different types of meteorites and their origins, can be found in Dalrymple There are 3 important things to know about the ages in Table 1.

    The first is that each meteorite was dated by more than one laboratory — Allende by 2 laboratories, Guarena by 2 laboratories, and St Severin by four laboratories. This pretty much eliminates any significant laboratory biases or any major analytical mistakes. The second thing is that some of the results have been repeated using the same technique, which is another check against analytical errors. The third is that all three meteorites were dated by more than one method — two methods each for Allende and Guarena, and four methods for St Severin. This is extremely powerful verification of the validity of both the theory and practice of radiometric dating.

    In the case of St Severin, for example, we have 4 different natural clocks actually 5, for the Pb-Pb method involves 2 different radioactive uranium isotopes , each running at a different rate and each using elements that respond to chemical and physical conditions in much different ways. And yet, they all give the same result to within a few percent. Is this a remarkable coincidence? Scientists have concluded that it is not; it is instead a consequence of the fact that radiometric dating actually works and works quite well. Creationists who wants to dispute the conclusion that primitive meteorites, and therefore the solar system, are about 4.

    One of the most exciting and important scientific findings in decades was the discovery that a large asteroid, about 10 kilometers diameter, struck the earth at the end of the Cretaceous Period. The collision threw many tons of debris into the atmosphere and possibly led to the extinction of the dinosaurs and many other life forms. The fallout from this enormous impact, including shocked quartz and high concentrations of the element iridium, has been found in sedimentary rocks at more than locations worldwide at the precise stratigraphic location of the Cretaceous-Tertiary K-T boundary Alvarez and Asaro ; Alvarez We now know that the impact site is located on the Yucatan Peninsula.

    Measuring the age of this impact event independently of the stratigraphic evidence is an obvious test for radiometric methods, and a number of scientists in laboratories around the world set to work. In addition to shocked quartz grains and high concentrations of iridium, the K-T impact produced tektites, which are small glass spherules that form from rock that is instantaneously melted by a large impact.

    The K-T tektites were ejected into the atmosphere and deposited some distance away. Tektites are easily recognizable and form in no other way, so the discovery of a sedimentary bed the Beloc Formation in Haiti that contained tektites and that, from fossil evidence, coincided with the K-T boundary provided an obvious candidate for dating.

    Scientists from the US Geological Survey were the first to obtain radiometric ages for the tektites and laboratories in Berkeley, Stanford, Canada, and France soon followed suit.

    Radiometric Dating

    The results from all of the laboratories were remarkably consistent with the measured ages ranging only from Similar tektites were also found in Mexico, and the Berkeley lab found that they were the same age as the Haiti tektites. The K-T boundary is recorded in numerous sedimentary beds around the world.

    Numerous thin beds of volcanic ash occur within these coals just centimeters above the K-T boundary, and some of these ash beds contain minerals that can be dated radiometrically. Since both the ash beds and the tektites occur either at or very near the K-T boundary, as determined by diagnostic fossils, the tektites and the ash beds should be very nearly the same age, and they are Table 2. There are several important things to note about these results. First, the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods were defined by geologists in the early s. The boundary between these periods the K-T boundary is marked by an abrupt change in fossils found in sedimentary rocks worldwide.

    Its exact location in the stratigraphic column at any locality has nothing to do with radiometric dating — it is located by careful study of the fossils and the rocks that contain them, and nothing more.