Relative age dating geology

Relative dating

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 rocks, 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.


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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 relationships. Say for example that a volcanic dike, or a fault, cuts across several sedimentary layers, or maybe through another volcanic rock type.

Pretty obvious that the dike came after the rocks it cuts through, right? With absolute age dating, you get a real age in actual years.

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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.

Relative dating is the science of determining the relative order of past events i. In geology, rock or superficial deposits , fossils and lithologies can be used to correlate one stratigraphic column with another.

Relative and Absolute Dating

Prior to the discovery of radiometric dating in the early 20th century, which provided a means of absolute dating , archaeologists and geologists used relative dating to determine ages of materials. Though relative dating can only determine the sequential order in which a series of events occurred, not when they occurred, it remains a useful technique. Relative dating by biostratigraphy is the preferred method in paleontology and is, in some respects, more accurate. The regular order of the occurrence of fossils in rock layers was discovered around by William Smith.

While digging the Somerset Coal Canal in southwest England, he found that fossils were always in the same order in the rock layers. As he continued his job as a surveyor , he found the same patterns across England. He also found that certain animals were in only certain layers and that they were in the same layers all across England. Due to that discovery, Smith was able to recognize the order that the rocks were formed. Sixteen years after his discovery, he published a geological map of England showing the rocks of different geologic time eras.

Methods for relative dating were developed when geology first emerged as a natural science in the 18th century. Geologists still use the following principles today as a means to provide information about geologic history and the timing of geologic events. The principle of Uniformitarianism states that the geologic processes observed in operation that modify the Earth's crust at present have worked in much the same way over geologic time. The principle of intrusive relationships concerns crosscutting intrusions.

In geology, when an igneous intrusion cuts across a formation of sedimentary rock , it can be determined that the igneous intrusion is younger than the sedimentary rock. There are a number of different types of intrusions, including stocks, laccoliths , batholiths , sills and dikes. The principle of cross-cutting relationships pertains to the formation of faults and the age of the sequences through which they cut. Faults are younger than the rocks they cut; accordingly, if a fault is found that penetrates some formations but not those on top of it, then the formations that were cut are older than the fault, and the ones that are not cut must be younger than the fault.

Finding the key bed in these situations may help determine whether the fault is a normal fault or a thrust fault. The principle of inclusions and components explains that, with sedimentary rocks, if inclusions or clasts are found in a formation, then the inclusions must be older than the formation that contains them. For example, in sedimentary rocks, it is common for gravel from an older formation to be ripped up and included in a newer layer.

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A similar situation with igneous rocks occurs when xenoliths are found. These foreign bodies are picked up as magma or lava flows, and are incorporated, later to cool in the matrix. As a result, xenoliths are older than the rock which contains them. The principle of original horizontality states that the deposition of sediments occurs as essentially horizontal beds. Observation of modern marine and non-marine sediments in a wide variety of environments supports this generalization although cross-bedding is inclined, the overall orientation of cross-bedded units is horizontal.

The law of superposition states that a sedimentary rock layer in a tectonically undisturbed sequence is younger than the one beneath it and older than the one above it.

This is because it is not possible for a younger layer to slip beneath a layer previously deposited. This principle allows sedimentary layers to be viewed as a form of vertical time line, a partial or complete record of the time elapsed from deposition of the lowest layer to deposition of the highest bed. The principle of faunal succession is based on the appearance of fossils in sedimentary rocks.


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Each time represents a half life. Each team should plot on a graph Figure 3 the number of pieces of candy remaining after each of their "shakes" and connect each successive point on the graph with a light line. AND, on the same graph, each group should plot points where, after each "shake" the starting number is divided by exactly two and connect these points by a differently colored line. After the graphs are plotted, the teacher should guide the class into thinking about: Is it the single group's results, or is it the line based on the class average?

U is found in most igneous rocks. Unless the rock is heated to a very high temperature, both the U and its daughter Pb remain in the rock. A geologist can compare the proportion of U atoms to Pb produced from it and determine the age of the rock. The next part of this exercise shows how this is done. Each team is given a piece of paper marked TIME, on which is written either 2, 4, 6, 8, or 10 minutes.

The team should place each marked piece so that "U" is showing. This represents Uranium, which emits a series of particles from the nucleus as it decays to Lead Pb- When each team is ready with the pieces all showing "U", a timed two-minute interval should start. During that time each team turns over half of the U pieces so that they now show Pb This represents one "half-life" of U, which is the time for half the nuclei to change from the parent U to the daughter Pb A new two-minute interval begins. Continue through a total of 4 to 5 timed intervals.

That is, each team should stop according to their TIME paper at the end of the first timed interval 2 minutes , or at the end of the second timed interval 4 minutes , and so on. After all the timed intervals have occurred, teams should exchange places with one another as instructed by the teacher. The task now for each team is to determine how many timed intervals that is, how many half-lives the set of pieces they are looking at has experienced.

The half life of U is million years.

Both the team that turned over a set of pieces and the second team that examined the set should determine how many million years are represented by the proportion of U and Pb present, compare notes, and haggle about any differences that they got. Right, each team must determine the number of millions of years represented by the set that they themselves turned over, PLUS the number of millions of years represented by the set that another team turned over.

Pb atoms in the pegmatite is 1: Using the same reasoning about proportions as in Part 2b above, students can determine how old the pegmatite and the granite are. They should write the ages of the pegmatite and granite beside the names of the rocks in the list below the block diagram Figure 1.

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This makes the curve more useful, because it is easier to plot it more accurately. That is especially helpful for ratios of parent isotope to daughter isotope that represent less than one half life. For the block diagram Figure 1 , if a geochemical laboratory determines that the volcanic ash that is in the siltstone has a ratio of U If the ratio in the basalt is 7:

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