Dating Fossils – How Are Fossils Dated?

This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Despite seeming like a relatively stable place, the Earth’s surface has changed dramatically over the past 4. Mountains have been built and eroded, continents and oceans have moved great distances, and the Earth has fluctuated from being extremely cold and almost completely covered with ice to being very warm and ice-free. These changes typically occur so slowly that they are barely detectable over the span of a human life, yet even at this instant, the Earth’s surface is moving and changing. As these changes have occurred, organisms have evolved, and remnants of some have been preserved as fossils. A fossil can be studied to determine what kind of organism it represents, how the organism lived, and how it was preserved. However, by itself a fossil has little meaning unless it is placed within some context. The age of the fossil must be determined so it can be compared to other fossil species from the same time period.

How Do Scientists Date Fossils?

Radiometric dating of rocks and minerals using naturally occurring, long-lived radioactive isotopes is troublesome for young-earth creationists because the techniques have provided overwhelming evidence of the antiquity of the earth and life. Some so-called creation scientists have attempted to show that radiometric dating does not work on theoretical grounds for example, Arndts and Overn ; Gill but such attempts invariably have fatal flaws see Dalrymple ; York and Dalrymple Other creationists have focused on instances in which radiometric dating seems to yield incorrect results.

In most instances, these efforts are flawed because the authors have misunderstood or misrepresented the data they attempt to analyze for example, Woodmorappe ; Morris HM ; Morris JD Only rarely does a creationist actually find an incorrect radiometric result Austin ; Rugg and Austin that has not already been revealed and discussed in the scientific literature.

By dating rocks of known ages which give highly inflated ages, geologists have shown this The dating methods aren’t as rock-solid as most people assume.

Geologists do not use carbon-based radiometric dating to determine the age of rocks. Carbon dating only works for objects that are younger than about 50, years, and most rocks of interest are older than that. Carbon dating is used by archeologists to date trees, plants, and animal remains; as well as human artifacts made from wood and leather; because these items are generally younger than 50, years.

Carbon is found in different forms in the environment — mainly in the stable form of carbon and the unstable form of carbon Over time, carbon decays radioactively and turns into nitrogen. A living organism takes in both carbon and carbon from the environment in the same relative proportion that they existed naturally. Once the organism dies, it stops replenishing its carbon supply, and the total carbon content in the organism slowly disappears. Scientists can determine how long ago an organism died by measuring how much carbon is left relative to the carbon Carbon has a half life of years, meaning that years after an organism dies, half of its carbon atoms have decayed to nitrogen atoms.

Similarly, years after an organism dies, only one quarter of its original carbon atoms are still around. Because of the short length of the carbon half-life, carbon dating is only accurate for items that are thousands to tens of thousands of years old.

7.2: Absolute Dating

Comparisons between the observed abundance of certain naturally occurring radioactive isotopes and their decay products, using known decay rates, can be used to measure timescales ranging from before the birth of the Earth to the present. For example measuring the ratio of stable and radioactive isotopes in meteorites can give us information on their history and provenance.

Radiometric dating techiques were pioneered by Bertram Boltwood in , when he was the first to establish the age of rocks by measuring the decay products of the uranium to lead. Carbon is the basic building block of organic compounds and is therefore an essential part of life on earth. Natural carbon contains two stable isotopes 12 C

To establish the age of a rock or a fossil, researchers use some type of clock to determine the.

Relative time allows scientists to tell the story of Earth events, but does not provide specific numeric ages, and thus, the rate at which geologic processes operate. Relative dating principles was how scientists interpreted Earth history until the end of the 19th Century. Because science advances as technology advances, the discovery of radioactivity in the late s provided scientists with a new scientific tool called radioisotopic dating.

Using this new technology, they could assign specific time units, in this case years, to mineral grains within a rock. These numerical values are not dependent on comparisons with other rocks such as with relative dating, so this dating method is called absolute dating [ 5 ]. There are several types of absolute dating discussed in this section but radioisotopic dating is the most common and therefore is the focus on this section.

All elements on the Periodic Table of Elements see Chapter 3 contain isotopes. An isotope is an atom of an element with a different number of neutrons. For example, hydrogen H always has 1 proton in its nucleus the atomic number , but the number of neutrons can vary among the isotopes 0, 1, 2. Recall that the number of neutrons added to the atomic number gives the atomic mass.

When hydrogen has 1 proton and 0 neutrons it is sometimes called protium 1 H , when hydrogen has 1 proton and 1 neutron it is called deuterium 2 H , and when hydrogen has 1 proton and 2 neutrons it is called tritium 3 H.

Dating Techniques

Here I want to concentrate on another source of error, namely, processes that take place within magma chambers. To me it has been a real eye opener to see all the processes that are taking place and their potential influence on radiometric dating. Radiometric dating is largely done on rock that has formed from solidified lava. Lava properly called magma before it erupts fills large underground chambers called magma chambers.

These dating techniques, which are firmly grounded in physics and are known collectively as radiometric dating, are used to measure the last.

It applies geochronological methods, especially radiometric dating. The geochronological scale is a periodic scale using the year as a basic unit. Apparent ages obtained in geochronometry are referred to as radiometric or isotope dates. For older rocks, multiple annual units are normally written in thousands of years ka or million years ma ; Holocene and Pleistocene dates are normally quoted in years before years BP before present or more recently have been quoted as b2k i.

Rank terms of geological time eon, era, period, epoch and age may be used for geochronometrical units when such terms are formalised cf. In addition, the element has to exist in sufficient quantity in the rocks and minerals under study to be extracted and analysed. There are now many different isotope decay schemes in use for geochronological purposes and, because of varying chemical and mineral stability during geological events, complex geological histories can be deduced by targeting problems with a suitable geochronometer.

It is important to know what event or process is under scrutiny and then to choose an appropriate geochronological tool. Good descriptions of techniques and their applications relavant to Quaternary problems can be found in Walker Uncalibrated radiocarbon ages are usually reported in 14C years before present BP , i. When plants fix atmospheric carbon dioxide CO2 into organic material during photosynthesis they incorporate a quantity of 14C that approximately matches the level of this isotope in the atmosphere a small difference occurs because of isotope fractionation, but this is corrected after laboratory analysis.

After plants die or they are consumed by other organisms the 14C fraction of this organic material declines at a fixed exponential rate due to the radioactive decay of 14C. Comparing the remaining 14C fraction of a sample to that expected from atmospheric 14C allows the age of the sample to be estimated. A reliable age is dependent upon the argon being held in place in substantial parts of the crystal.

19.4 Isotopic Dating Methods

Cart 0. Crabs, Lobsters, Shrimp, etc. Fish Fossils.

The majority of the time fossils are dated using relative dating techniques. radioactive minerals that occur in rocks and fossils almost like a geological clock.

Geochronology is the science of determining the age of rocks , fossils , and sediments using signatures inherent in the rocks themselves. Absolute geochronology can be accomplished through radioactive isotopes , whereas relative geochronology is provided by tools such as palaeomagnetism and stable isotope ratios. By combining multiple geochronological and biostratigraphic indicators the precision of the recovered age can be improved.

Geochronology is different in application from biostratigraphy, which is the science of assigning sedimentary rocks to a known geological period via describing, cataloging and comparing fossil floral and faunal assemblages. Biostratigraphy does not directly provide an absolute age determination of a rock, but merely places it within an interval of time at which that fossil assemblage is known to have coexisted.

Both disciplines work together hand in hand, however, to the point where they share the same system of naming strata rock layers and the time spans utilized to classify sublayers within a stratum. The science of geochronology is the prime tool used in the discipline of chronostratigraphy , which attempts to derive absolute age dates for all fossil assemblages and determine the geologic history of the Earth and extraterrestrial bodies. By measuring the amount of radioactive decay of a radioactive isotope with a known half-life , geologists can establish the absolute age of the parent material.

A number of radioactive isotopes are used for this purpose, and depending on the rate of decay, are used for dating different geological periods. More slowly decaying isotopes are useful for longer periods of time, but less accurate in absolute years. With the exception of the radiocarbon method , most of these techniques are actually based on measuring an increase in the abundance of a radiogenic isotope, which is the decay-product of the radioactive parent isotope.

AGE OF THE EARTH

Petrology Tulane University Prof. Stephen A. Nelson Radiometric Dating Prior to the best and most accepted age of the Earth was that proposed by Lord Kelvin based on the amount of time necessary for the Earth to cool to its present temperature from a completely liquid state. Although we now recognize lots of problems with that calculation, the age of 25 my was accepted by most physicists, but considered too short by most geologists.

Then, in , radioactivity was discovered.

Scientists use 2 methods to determine the age of fossils: 1. Relative Dating. 2. When geologists date rocks, they are determining how long ago they formed.

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. 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. 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 to argon is used to date rocks older than 20, years, and the decay of uranium to lead is used for rocks older than 1 million years.

Laws of Relative Rock Dating