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Absolute dating

Comparing radiocarbon dating methods


Video: Comparing radiocarbon dating methods
Geologists often need to know the age of material that they find. They use absolute
dating methods, sometimes called numerical dating, to give rocks an actual date, or
date range, in number of years. This is different to relative dating, which only puts
geological events in time order.

Radiometric dating

Most absolute dates for rocks are obtained with radiometric methods. These use
radioactive minerals in rocks as geological clocks.

The atoms of some chemical elements have different forms, called isotopes. These
break down over time in a process scientists call radioactive decay. Each original
isotope, called the parent, gradually decays to form a new isotope, called the
daughter. Each isotope is identified with what is called a mass number. When
parent uranium-238 decays, for example, it produces subatomic particles, energy
and daughter lead-206.

Absolute dating rock layers


Interactive: Absolute dating rock layers

Isotopes are important to geologists because each radioactive element decays at a


constant rate, which is unique to that element. These rates of decay are known, so
if you can measure the proportion of parent and daughter isotopes in rocks now,
you can calculate when the rocks were formed.

Because of their unique decay rates, different elements are used for dating different
age ranges. For example, the decay of potassium-40 to argon-40 is used to date
rocks older than 20,000 years, and the decay of uranium-238 to lead-206 is used for
rocks older than 1 million years.

Radiocarbon dating measures radioactive isotopes in once-living organic material


instead of rock, using the decay of carbon-14 to nitrogen-14. Because of the fairly
fast decay rate of carbon-14, it can only be used on material up to about 60,000
years old. Geologists use radiocarbon to date such materials as wood and pollen
trapped in sediment, which indicates the date of the sediment itself.

Characteristics of some common radiometric dating methods.


Image: Radiometric dating methods

What is an isotope?
Video: What is an isotope?
Measuring isotopes is particularly useful for dating igneous and some metamorphic
rock, but not sedimentary rock. Sedimentary rock is made of particles derived from
other rocks, so measuring isotopes would date the original rock material, not the
sediments they have ended up in. However, there are radiometric dating methods
that can be used on sedimentary rock, including luminescence dating.

All radiometric dating methods measure isotopes in some way. Most directly
measure the amount of isotopes in rocks, using a mass spectrometer. Others
measure the subatomic particles that are emitted as an isotope decays. Some
measure the decay of isotopes more indirectly. For example, fission track dating
measures the microscopic marks left in crystals by subatomic particles from
decaying isotopes. Another example is luminescence dating, which measures the
energy from radioactive decay that is trapped inside nearby crystals.

Published:
20 May 2011