Relative dating age

Most Earth geologists don't talk about that much. Paleontologists have used major appearances and disappearances of different kinds of fossils on Earth to divide Earth's history -- at least the part of it for which there are lots of fossils -- into lots of eras and periods and epochs. When you talk about something happening in the Precambrian or the Cenozoic or the Silurian or Eocene, you are talking about something that happened when a certain kind of fossil life was present. Major boundaries in Earth's time scale happen when there were major extinction events that wiped certain kinds of fossils out of the fossil record.

This is called the chronostratigraphic time scale -- that is, the division of time the "chrono-" part according to the relative position in the rock record that's "stratigraphy". The science of paleontology, and its use for relative age dating, was well-established before the science of isotopic age-dating was developed.

The Grand Canyon and Relative Dating

Nowadays, age-dating of rocks has established pretty precise numbers for the absolute ages of the boundaries between fossil assemblages, but there's still uncertainty in those numbers, even for Earth. In fact, I have sitting in front of me on my desk a two-volume work on The Geologic Time Scale , fully pages devoted to an eight-year effort to fine-tune the correlation between the relative time scale and the absolute time scale. The Geologic Time Scale is not light reading, but I think that every Earth or space scientist should have a copy in his or her library -- and make that the latest edition.

In the time since the previous geologic time scale was published in , most of the boundaries between Earth's various geologic ages have shifted by a million years or so, and one of them the Carnian-Norian boundary within the late Triassic epoch has shifted by 12 million years. With this kind of uncertainty, Felix Gradstein, editor of the Geologic Time Scale, suggests that we should stick with relative age terms when describing when things happened in Earth's history emphasis mine:. For clarity and precision in international communication, the rock record of Earth's history is subdivided into a "chronostratigraphic" scale of standardized global stratigraphic units, such as "Devonian", "Miocene", " Zigzagiceras zigzag ammonite zone", or "polarity Chron C25r".

Unlike the continuous ticking clock of the "chronometric" scale measured in years before the year AD , the chronostratigraphic scale is based on relative time units in which global reference points at boundary stratotypes define the limits of the main formalized units, such as "Permian". The chronostratigraphic scale is an agreed convention, whereas its calibration to linear time is a matter for discovery or estimation.

We can all agree to the extent that scientists agree on anything to the fossil-derived scale, but its correspondence to numbers is a "calibration" process, and we must either make new discoveries to improve that calibration, or estimate as best we can based on the data we have already. To show you how this calibration changes with time, here's a graphic developed from the previous version of The Geologic Time Scale , comparing the absolute ages of the beginning and end of the various periods of the Paleozoic era between and I tip my hat to Chuck Magee for the pointer to this graphic.

Fossils give us this global chronostratigraphic time scale on Earth. On other solid-surfaced worlds -- which I'll call "planets" for brevity, even though I'm including moons and asteroids -- we haven't yet found a single fossil.


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Something else must serve to establish a relative time sequence. That something else is impact craters. Earth is an unusual planet in that it doesn't have very many impact craters -- they've mostly been obliterated by active geology. Venus, Io, Europa, Titan, and Triton have a similar problem. On almost all the other solid-surfaced planets in the solar system, impact craters are everywhere. The Moon, in particular, is saturated with them.

We use craters to establish relative age dates in two ways. If an impact event was large enough, its effects were global in reach. For example, the Imbrium impact basin on the Moon spread ejecta all over the place. Any surface that has Imbrium ejecta lying on top of it is older than Imbrium. Any craters or lava flows that happened inside the Imbrium basin or on top of Imbrium ejecta are younger than Imbrium. Imbrium is therefore a stratigraphic marker -- something we can use to divide the chronostratigraphic history of the Moon. The other way we use craters to age-date surfaces is simply to count the craters.

Relative and absolute ages in the histories of Earth and the Moon: The Geologic Time Scale

At its simplest, surfaces with more craters have been exposed to space for longer, so are older, than surfaces with fewer craters. Of course the real world is never quite so simple. There are several different ways to destroy smaller craters while preserving larger craters, for example.

Despite problems, the method works really, really well. Most often, the events that we are age-dating on planets are related to impacts or volcanism. Volcanoes can spew out large lava deposits that cover up old cratered surfaces, obliterating the cratering record and resetting the crater-age clock. When lava flows overlap, it's not too hard to use the law of superposition to tell which one is older and which one is younger.

If they don't overlap, we can use crater counting to figure out which one is older and which one is younger. In this way we can determine relative ages for things that are far away from each other on a planet. Interleaved impact cratering and volcanic eruption events have been used to establish a relative time scale for the Moon, with names for periods and epochs, just as fossils have been used to establish a relative time scale for Earth.

The chapter draws on five decades of work going right back to the origins of planetary geology. The Moon's history is divided into pre-Nectarian, Nectarian, Imbrian, Eratosthenian, and Copernican periods from oldest to youngest. The oldest couple of chronostratigraphic boundaries are defined according to when two of the Moon's larger impact basins formed: There were many impacts before Nectaris, in the pre-Nectarian period including 30 major impact basins , and there were many more that formed in the Nectarian period, the time between Nectaris and Imbrium.

The Orientale impact happened shortly after the Imbrium impact, and that was pretty much it for major basin-forming impacts on the Moon. I talked about all of these basins in my previous blog post. There was some volcanism happening during the Nectarian and early Imbrian period, but it really got going after Orientale.

Vast quantities of lava erupted onto the Moon's nearside, filling many of the older basins with dark flows. So the Imbrian period is divided into the Early Imbrian epoch -- when Imbrium and Orientale formed -- and the Late Imbrian epoch -- when most mare volcanism happened. People have done a lot of work on crater counts of mare basalts, establishing a very good relative time sequence for when each eruption happened. Mare Ingenii, the "Sea of Cleverness," is a small area of mare basalt dark filling an impact basin that is itself inside the South Pole-Aitken Basin on the Moon's farside.


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  6. The basalt has fewer, smaller craters than the adjacent highlands. Even though it is far away from the nearside basalts, geologists can use crater statistics to determine whether it erupted before, concurrently with, or after nearside maria did.

    Relative dating - Wikipedia

    Over time, mare volcanism waned, and the Moon entered a period called the Eratosthenian -- but where exactly this happened in the record is a little fuzzy. Tanaka and Hartmann lament that Eratosthenes impact did not have widespread-enough effects to allow global relative age dating -- but neither did any other crater; there are no big impacts to use to date this time period.

    Tanaka and Hartmann suggest that the decline in mare volcanism -- and whatever impact crater density is associated with the last gasps of mare volcanism -- would be a better marker than any one impact crater. Most recently, a few late impact craters, including Copernicus, spread bright rays across the lunar nearside. Presumably older impact craters made pretty rays too, but those rays have faded with time. Rayed craters provide another convenient chronostratigraphic marker and therefore the boundary between the Eratosthenian and Copernican eras.

    Here is a graphic showing the chronostratigraphy for the Moon -- our story for how the Moon changed over geologic time, put in graphic form. Basins and craters dominate the early history of the Moon, followed by mare volcanism and fewer craters. Can we put absolute ages on this time scale? Well, we can certainly try. The Moon is the one planet other than Earth for which we have rocks that were picked up in known locations.

    We also have several lunar meteorites to play with.


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    Most moon rocks are very old. All the Apollo missions brought back samples of rocks that were produced or affected by the Imbrium impact, so we can confidently date the Imbrium impact to about 3. And we can pretty confidently date mare volcanism for each of the Apollo and Luna landing sites -- that was happening around 3. Not quite as old, but still pretty old. Beyond that, the work to pin numbers on specific events gets much harder. There is an enormous body of science on the age-dating of Apollo samples and Moon-derived asteroids.

    We have a lot of rock samples and a lot of derived ages, but it's hard to be certain where a particular chunk of rock picked up by an astronaut originated. The Moon's surface has been so extensively "gardened" over time by smaller impacts that there was no intact bedrock available to the Apollo astronauts to sample. 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. 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. As organisms exist at the same time period throughout the world, their presence or sometimes absence may be used to provide a relative age of the formations in which they are found.

    Based on principles laid out by William Smith almost a hundred years before the publication of Charles Darwin 's theory of evolution , the principles of succession were developed independently of evolutionary thought.

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    The principle becomes quite complex, however, given the uncertainties of fossilization, the localization of fossil types due to lateral changes in habitat facies change in sedimentary strata , and that not all fossils may be found globally at the same time. The principle of lateral continuity states that layers of sediment initially extend laterally in all directions; in other words, they are laterally continuous. As a result, rocks that are otherwise similar, but are now separated by a valley or other erosional feature, can be assumed to be originally continuous.

    Layers of sediment do not extend indefinitely; rather, the limits can be recognized and are controlled by the amount and type of sediment available and the size and shape of the sedimentary basin. Sediment will continue to be transported to an area and it will eventually be deposited. However, the layer of that material will become thinner as the amount of material lessens away from the source. Often, coarser-grained material can no longer be transported to an area because the transporting medium has insufficient energy to carry it to that location.

    In its place, the particles that settle from the transporting medium will be finer-grained, and there will be a lateral transition from coarser- to finer-grained material. The lateral variation in sediment within a stratum is known as sedimentary facies. If sufficient sedimentary material is available, it will be deposited up to the limits of the sedimentary basin. Often, the sedimentary basin is within rocks that are very different from the sediments that are being deposited, in which the lateral limits of the sedimentary layer will be marked by an abrupt change in rock type.

    WHO'S ON FIRST? RELATIVE DATING (Student Activity)

    Melt inclusions are small parcels or "blobs" of molten rock that are trapped within crystals that grow in the magmas that form igneous rocks. In many respects they are analogous to fluid inclusions. Melt inclusions are generally small — most are less than micrometres across a micrometre is one thousandth of a millimeter, or about 0.

    Nevertheless, they can provide an abundance of useful information. Using microscopic observations and a range of chemical microanalysis techniques geochemists and igneous petrologists can obtain a range of useful information from melt inclusions. Two of the most common uses of melt inclusions are to study the compositions of magmas present early in the history of specific magma systems. This is because inclusions can act like "fossils" — trapping and preserving these early melts before they are modified by later igneous processes.

    In addition, because they are trapped at high pressures many melt inclusions also provide important information about the contents of volatile elements such as H 2 O, CO 2 , S and Cl that drive explosive volcanic eruptions. Sorby was the first to document microscopic melt inclusions in crystals. The study of melt inclusions has been driven more recently by the development of sophisticated chemical analysis techniques. Scientists from the former Soviet Union lead the study of melt inclusions in the decades after World War II Sobolev and Kostyuk, , and developed methods for heating melt inclusions under a microscope, so changes could be directly observed.

    Although they are small, melt inclusions may contain a number of different constituents, including glass which represents magma that has been quenched by rapid cooling , small crystals and a separate vapour-rich bubble. They occur in most of the crystals found in igneous rocks and are common in the minerals quartz , feldspar , olivine and pyroxene. The formation of melt inclusions appears to be a normal part of the crystallization of minerals within magmas, and they can be found in both volcanic and plutonic rocks.

    The law of included fragments is a method of relative dating in geology. Essentially, this law states that clasts in a rock are older than the rock itself. Another example is a derived fossil , which is a fossil that has been eroded from an older bed and redeposited into a younger one. This is a restatement of Charles Lyell 's original principle of inclusions and components from his to multi-volume Principles of Geology , which states 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.

    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 Relative dating is used to determine the order of events on Solar System objects other than Earth; for decades, planetary scientists have used it to decipher the development of bodies in the Solar System , particularly in the vast majority of cases for which we have no surface samples.

    Many of the same principles are applied.