Dating Fossils – How Are Fossils Dated?
Radiometric dating and absolute dating are using an outdated browser. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience. September 30, by Beth Geiger. Dinosaurs disappeared about 65 million years ago. That corn cob found in an ancient Native American fire pit is years old. How do scientists actually know these ages? Geologic age dating—assigning an age to materials—is an entire discipline of its own.
In a way this field, called geochronology, is some of the purest detective work earth scientists do. There are two basic approaches: Here is an easy-to understand analogy for your students: Absolute age dating is like saying you are 15 years old and your grandfather is 77 years old. To determine the relative age of different radiometric dating and absolute dating, geologists start with the assumption that unless something has happened, in a sequence of sedimentary rock layers, the newer rock layers will be on top of older ones.
This is called the Rule of Superposition. This rule is common sense, but it serves as a powerful reference point. Geologists draw on it and other basic principles http: Relative age dating also means paying attention to crosscutting radiometric dating and absolute dating. Say for example that a volcanic dike, or a fault, cuts across several sedimentary layers, or maybe through another volcanic rock type. obvious that the dike came after the rocks it cuts through, right?
With absolute age dating, you get a real age in actual years. Based on the Rule of Superposition, certain organisms clearly lived before others, during certain geologic times. 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: So geochronolgists just measure the ratio of the remaining parent atom to the amount of daughter and voila, they know how long the molecule has been hanging out decaying. 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. 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. Chart of a few different isotope half lifes: If a rock has been partially melted, or otherwise metamorphosed, that causes radiometric dating and absolute dating for radiometric absolute age dating as well.
Good overview as relates to the Grand Canyon:. Have students reconstruct a simple geologic history — which are the oldest rocks shown? Which are the youngest? I also like this simple exercise, a spin-off from an activity described on the USGS site above. Take students on a neighborhood walk and see what you can observe about age dates around you.
For example, which is older, the bricks in a building or the building itself? Are there repairs or cracks in the sidewalk that came after the sidewalk was built? Have students work alone or in pairs to find an article or paper that uses radiometric age dating. From the chart, which methods are best for older materials? Can you tell why? Beth Geiger Beth Geiger is a geologist-turned science writer. She especially likes to share her passion for Earth science with school-age audiences, and has written many articles and short topic books directed at 5th through 12th graders.
Beth lives in Seattle, Washington with her husband and two sons, who often tell her if they think a topic is cool radiometric dating and absolute dating not. You can learn more about Beth's writing at her website www. Sign up for our email list and gain access to free content, special promotions, sales and more. Please send me Free Resources, Special Deals and Promotions.
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