These simple techniques have widely and successfully applied since at least the early s, and by the early s, geologists had recognized that many obvious similarities existed in terms of the independently-reconstructed sequence of geologic events observed in different parts of the world. One of the earliest relative time scales based upon this observation was the subdivision of the Earth's stratigraphy and therefore its history , into the "Primary", "Secondary", "Tertiary", and later "Quaternary" strata based mainly on characteristic rock types in Europe.
The latter two subdivisions, in an emended form, are still used today by geologists. The earliest, "Primary" is somewhat similar to the modern Paleozoic and Precambrian, and the "Secondary" is similar to the modern Mesozoic. Another observation was the similarity of the fossils observed within the succession of strata, which leads to the next topic. As geologists continued to reconstruct the Earth's geologic history in the s and early s, they quickly recognized that the distribution of fossils within this history was not random -- fossils occurred in a consistent order.
This was true at a regional, and even a global scale. Furthermore, fossil organisms were more unique than rock types, and much more varied, offering the potential for a much more precise subdivision of the stratigraphy and events within it.
Radiometric Dating and the Geological Time Scale
The recognition of the utility of fossils for more precise "relative dating" is often attributed to William Smith, a canal engineer who observed the fossil succession while digging through the rocks of southern England. But scientists like Albert Oppel hit upon the same principles at about about the same time or earlier. In Smith's case, by using empirical observations of the fossil succession, he was able to propose a fine subdivision of the rocks and map out the formations of southern England in one of the earliest geological maps Other workers in the rest of Europe, and eventually the rest of the world, were able to compare directly to the same fossil succession in their areas, even when the rock types themselves varied at finer scale.
For example, everywhere in the world, trilobites were found lower in the stratigraphy than marine reptiles. Dinosaurs were found after the first occurrence of land plants, insects, and amphibians. Spore-bearing land plants like ferns were always found before the occurrence of flowering plants. The observation that fossils occur in a consistent succession is known as the "principle of faunal and floral succession".
The study of the succession of fossils and its application to relative dating is known as "biostratigraphy". Each increment of time in the stratigraphy could be characterized by a particular assemblage of fossil organisms, formally termed a biostratigraphic "zone" by the German paleontologists Friedrich Quenstedt and Albert Oppel. These zones could then be traced over large regions, and eventually globally.
Groups of zones were used to establish larger intervals of stratigraphy, known as geologic "stages" and geologic "systems". The time corresponding to most of these intervals of rock became known as geologic "ages" and "periods", respectively. By the end of the s, most of the presently-used geologic periods had been established based on their fossil content and their observed relative position in the stratigraphy e. These terms were preceded by decades by other terms for various geologic subdivisions, and although there was subsequent debate over their exact boundaries e.
Dating Geological Events
By the s, fossil succession had been studied to an increasing degree, such that the broad history of life on Earth was well understood, regardless of the debate over the names applied to portions of it, and where exactly to make the divisions. All paleontologists recognized unmistakable trends in morphology through time in the succession of fossil organisms.
This observation led to attempts to explain the fossil succession by various mechanisms. Perhaps the best known example is Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Note that chronologically, fossil succession was well and independently established long before Darwin's evolutionary theory was proposed in Fossil succession and the geologic time scale are constrained by the observed order of the stratigraphy -- basically geometry -- not by evolutionary theory. For almost the next years, geologists operated using relative dating methods, both using the basic principles of geology and fossil succession biostratigraphy.
Various attempts were made as far back as the s to scientifically estimate the age of the Earth, and, later, to use this to calibrate the relative time scale to numeric values refer to "Changing views of the history of the Earth" by Richard Harter and Chris Stassen. Most of the early attempts were based on rates of deposition, erosion, and other geological processes, which yielded uncertain time estimates, but which clearly indicated Earth history was at least million or more years old. A challenge to this interpretation came in the form of Lord Kelvin's William Thomson's calculations of the heat flow from the Earth, and the implication this had for the age -- rather than hundreds of millions of years, the Earth could be as young as tens of million of years old.
This evaluation was subsequently invalidated by the discovery of radioactivity in the last years of the 19th century, which was an unaccounted for source of heat in Kelvin's original calculations. With it factored in, the Earth could be vastly older. Estimates of the age of the Earth again returned to the prior methods. The discovery of radioactivity also had another side effect, although it was several more decades before its additional significance to geology became apparent and the techniques became refined. Because of the chemistry of rocks, it was possible to calculate how much radioactive decay had occurred since an appropriate mineral had formed, and how much time had therefore expired, by looking at the ratio between the original radioactive isotope and its product, if the decay rate was known.
Many geological complications and measurement difficulties existed, but initial attempts at the method clearly demonstrated that the Earth was very old. In fact, the numbers that became available were significantly older than even some geologists were expecting -- rather than hundreds of millions of years, which was the minimum age expected, the Earth's history was clearly at least billions of years long. Radiometric dating provides numerical values for the age of an appropriate rock, usually expressed in millions of years.
Therefore, by dating a series of rocks in a vertical succession of strata previously recognized with basic geologic principles see Stratigraphic principles and relative time , it can provide a numerical calibration for what would otherwise be only an ordering of events -- i.
The integration of relative dating and radiometric dating has resulted in a series of increasingly precise "absolute" i. Given the background above, the information used for a geologic time scale can be related like this: A continuous vertical stratigraphic section will provide the order of occurrence of events column 1 of Figure 2. These are summarized in terms of a "relative time scale" column 2 of Figure 2.
Studyit: Dating geological events
Geologists can refer to intervals of time as being "pre-first appearance of species A" or "during the existence of species A", or "after volcanic eruption 1" at least six subdivisions are possible in the example in Figure 2. For this type of "relative dating" to work it must be known that the succession of events is unique or at least that duplicate events are recognized -- e. Unique events can be biological e. Ideally, geologists are looking for events that are unmistakably unique, in a consistent order, and of global extent in order to construct a geological time scale with global significance.
Some of these events do exist. For example, the boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods is recognized on the basis of the extinction of a large number of organisms globally including ammonites, dinosaurs, and others , the first appearance of new types of organisms, the presence of geochemical anomalies notably iridium , and unusual types of minerals related to meteorite impact processes impact spherules and shocked quartz. These types of distinctive events provide confirmation that the Earth's stratigraphy is genuinely successional on a global scale.
Even without that knowledge, it is still possible to construct local geologic time scales. Although the idea that unique physical and biotic events are synchronous might sound like an "assumption", it is not. 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 scale , and 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:. Even some geologists have stated this misconception in slightly different words in seemingly authoritative works e. 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. If it is a small but significant inconsistency, it could indicate that the geological time scale requires a small revision. 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 magnitude , it 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.
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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 dating , and 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.
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 dating , which adopts a "compilation" approach, and gives only superficial treatment to the individual dates. Among other problems documented in an FAQ by Steven Schimmrich , many of Woodmorappe's examples neglect the geological complexities that are expected to cause problems for some radiometrically-dated samples.
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.
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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:. 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. 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.
Sedimentary rocks are rocks that form from the deposition, compaction and cementation of small fragments of rock, or dissolved substances from other rocks, or in some cases marine animals. Sandstone is created when individual sand fragments are deposited in thick layers by wind and water, which are then compacted and cemented together. Conglomerate is a type of sandstone that contains a wide variety of particle sizes. Both sandstone and conglomerate are what is known as clastic sedimentary rocks, where mineral fragments from any of the three major rock groups accumulate and lithify compact and cement.
Limestone is what is known as a chemically precipitated sedimentary rock. These rocks form when mineral compounds accumulate at the bottom of oceans or inland lakes. Limestone is often abundant in fossils and therefore geologists can determine the environmental conditions when the sediments were initially deposited. Once the types of rocks present have been determined, and therefore you have some idea of the processes involved in the formation of the landscape, you now may wish to figure out when these processes occurred.
There are two main aspects to geological dating — relative dating and absolute dating. Relative dating does not give a precise age of a rock, but determines whether it is older or younger than another rock — placing rocks in their sequence of formation. There are laws of relative dating which guide geologists to be able to determine the relative age of rocks.
Using all of these aspects, geologists can look at a cross section of rock strata and determine in relative order which rocks were deposited when. This gives an idea of the geological history of the area, but does not give a definitive timeframe as to when each event occurred. In order to gather this information geologists need to use absolute dating techniques.
This dating method works by looking at the atomic structure of the sample. All rocks are composed of atoms, each atom having a nucleus containing protons and neutrons. Most atoms are stable, but some are not. Those that are not are called radioactive isotopes. In these isotopes, particles within the nucleus break apart and the atom decays into a different element, emitting radiation in the process.
Each isotope decays at a different known rate. The known rate is expressed as a half-life, which is the amount of time it takes for half of the parent isotopes to decay into daughter atoms. So in order to determine the age of a rock sample, geologists compare the amount of the original isotope in the sample with the amount of the decayed end product — the daughter atoms. Different radioactive isotopes are useful for dating different rock samples, as those with a shorter half-life are only useful for dating younger rocks.
Absolute dating using radioactive isotopes provide a running time clock for the history of the earth, so geological events can be dated and their sequence understood. Whilst relative dating using stratigraphy is useful in showing the sequence of events in a particular location, such as Musgrave Peninsula at the Auckland Islands, the true age of the rocks can be determined using absolute dating.
Absolute ages and relative stratigraphy can then be cross correlated to justify the evidence related to dating the geological events. At the Auckland Islands rock samples have been dated using radiometric potassium-argon dating. Samples mainly basalt were taken from both the Ross and the Carnley volcanic fields to show when the two volcanic events took place.
This study showed that the Ross volcano is at least It also showed that the Carnley volcanic field had its first activity between Million years ago, but has had more recent volcanic activity beginning about 19 Million years ago.
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