General considerations

To get an age in years, we use radiometric dating of the rocks. Not every rock can be dated this way, but volcanic ash deposits are among those that can be dated. The position of the fossils above or below a dated ash layer allows us to work out their ages. The volcanic ash layer is dated as million years old. The fossil species below the ash must be slightly older than million years, and the species above the ash must be slightly younger. If rocks in different places contain the same fossil species, they must be similar in age. Tracing of rocks and fossils from one place to another is called correlation.

When such marks are preserved in sedimentary rocks, they define the original top and bottom by their asymmetric pattern. Certain fossils also accumulate in a distinctive pattern or position that serves to define the top side. In wind-blown or water-lain sandstone , a form of erosion during deposition of shifting sand removes the tops of mounds to produce what are called cross-beds.

The truncated layers provide an easily determined depositional top direction. The direction of the opening of mud cracks or rain prints can indicate the uppermost surface of mudstones formed in tidal areas. When a section of rock is uplifted and eroded, as during mountain-building episodes, great volumes of rock are removed, exposing a variety of differently folded and deformed rock units.

Geologic Age Dating Explained - Kids Discover

The new erosion surface must postdate all units, dikes, veins, and deformation features that it crosses. Even the shapes formed on the erosional or depositional surfaces of the ancient seafloor can be used to tell which way was up. A fragment broken from one bed can only be located in a younger unit, and a pebble or animal track can only deform a preexisting unit—i. In fact, the number of ways in which one can determine the tops of well-preserved sediments is limited only by the imagination, and visual criteria can be deduced by amateurs and professionals alike.

One factor that can upset the law of superposition in major sediment packages in mountain belts is the presence of thrust faults. Such faults , which are common in compression zones along continental edges, may follow bedding planes and then cross the strata at a steep angle, placing older units on top of younger ones. In certain places, the fault planes are only a few centimetres thick and are almost impossible to detect.

Relative ages also can be deduced in metamorphic rocks as new minerals form at the expense of older ones in response to changing temperatures and pressures. In deep mountain roots, rocks can even flow like toothpaste in their red-hot state. Local melting may occur, and certain minerals suitable for precise isotopic dating may form both in the melt and in the host rock. In the latter case, refractory grains in particular may record the original age of the rock in their cores and the time of melting in their newly grown tips.

Analytical methods are now available to date both growth stages, even though each part may weigh only a few millionths of a gram see below Correlation.

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Rocks that flow in a plastic state record their deformation in the alignment of their constituent minerals. Such rocks then predate the deformation.

If other rocks that are clearly not deformed can be found at the same site, the time of deformation can be inferred to lie between the absolute isotopic ages of the two units. Igneous rocks provide perhaps the most striking examples of relative ages. Magma , formed by melting deep within Earth, cuts across and hence postdates all units as it rises through the crust, perhaps even to emerge at the surface as lava.

Black lava, or basalt , the most common volcanic rock on Earth, provides a simple means for determining the depositional tops of rock sequences as well as proof of the antiquity of the oceans. Pillow shapes are formed as basaltic lava is extruded i. The shapes of pillows in ancient basalts provide both a direct indication of depositional top and proof of underwater eruption. They are widespread in rocks as old as 3. Basaltic lava rocks that are common where ancient continents have been rifted apart are fed from below by near vertical fractures penetrating the crust.

Material that solidifies in such cracks remains behind as dikes. Here the dikes must be younger than all other units. A more interesting case develops when a cooled older crust is fractured, invaded by a swarm of dikes, and subsequently subjected to a major episode of heating with deformation and intrusion of new magma. In this instance, even though the resulting outcrop pattern is extremely complex, all of the predike units can be distinguished by the relic dikes present. The dikes also record in their newly formed minerals components that can be analyzed to give both the absolute age and the temperature and pressure of the second event.

Because dike swarms are commonly widespread, the conditions determined can often be extrapolated over a broad region.

Relative Dating of Rock Layers

Dikes do not always continue upward in a simple fashion. In some cases, they spread between the layers of near-horizontal sedimentary or volcanic units to form bodies called sills. In this situation, fragments of the host rock must be found within the intrusive body to establish its relatively younger age. Once most or all of the relative ages of various strata have been determined in a region, it may be possible to deduce that certain units have been offset by movement along fractures or faults while others have not.

Dikes that cross fault boundaries may even be found. Application of the simple principle of crosscutting relationships can allow the relative ages of all units to be deduced. The principles for relative age dating described above require no special equipment and can be applied by anyone on a local or regional scale. They are based on visual observations and simple logical deductions and rely on a correlation and integration of data that occurs in fragmentary form at many outcrop locations.

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Geologic Age Dating Explained

Jan 2, See Article History. Read More on This Topic. Page 1 of 8. Learn More in these related Britannica articles: Dating depends on scientific methods. Cores through deep ocean-floor sediments and the Arctic ice cap have provided a continuous record of climatic conditions for the last one million years, but individual sites cannot easily be matched to it. Radiocarbon dating is effective to 35, years….

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The emergence of Mesopotamian civilization. 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. 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.

Sedimentary Rocks

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.