Dating the Earth Study Guide (page 3)
The earth, as we've seen, is about four and a half billion years old. Some rocks exist for all ages, except for the very oldest times. The geological cycles have created and destroyed mountains and even continents during the saga of plate tectonics, changing igneous rocks into sedimentary rocks, and both of those into metamorphic rocks, which in turn can again become sedimentary rocks. But how do we know about the ages of the continents, the mountains, and indeed the earth itself?
The striking thing about sedimentary rock is that it often occurs in layers, which are called beds or strata by geologists. Sometimes, you see beds when a hill has been sliced through using dynamite so a road can pass. You can also see beds on a massive scale in the Grand Canyon where rock 2,000 meters thick was deposited, on and off, during an interval of 300 million years. Beds are the distinct layers of rock on a small scale. Often, in places such as the Grand Canyon, beds of a similar color and type of rock are built into even larger layers called formations. If beds are the layers of a layer cake, a formation is the cake itself.
Thus, beds are thinner than the formations as they make up the actual formations. Both beds and formations are types of strata, which is the general term used by geologists for the layers of rock. Igneous and metamorphic rock can occur in strata as well, such as when lava overflows a layer of sedimentary rock, adding a stratum (the singular of strata) of igneous rock to the sedimentary strata. The geological study of strata is called stratigraphy, and the scientists are called stratigraphers.
The first principle used by stratigraphers is what they call the law of original horizontally. This law applies to sedimentary rock layers, which for the most part, were formed when sediments were laid down under water. The seabed where the sediments are deposited is usually the shallow offshore area called the continental shelf, which is under water but actually part of the geology of continents. The continental shelf is nearly horizontal. In other cases, sedimentary rock was laid down when sea level was higher and there were large expanses of regions that are now land but which long ago were covered with a shallow sea. In the United States, for example, much of what is now Texas and Oklahoma was under water. Sediments deposited there were laid down horizontally as well.
Thus, according to the law of original horizontality, sedimentary rock began as horizontally deposited layers. That means that wherever we see sed imentary rock whose strata are tilted, we know that tremendous geological forces have been at work that raised up and tilted massive volumes of rock. Plate tectonics is such a force.
Another guiding scientific rule that is important to stratigraphers is the principle of superposition. This rule states that more recent (younger) sedimentary layers of rock were laid down on top of older layers. As you hike, for example, down into the Grand Canyon (whose layers are still fairly horizontal), you descend back in time as you go downward into the strata.
Of course, because of the mighty forces of plate tectonics, one must apply the principle of superposition with care. What if the strata are vertical? That means the layers have been tilted by 90°. Then which is the oldest? To the right or to the left? You cannot tell just from looking. Furthermore, because complete folding sometimes occurs in the layers, it is even possible for an older layer to now sit on top of a younger one. Imagine, for example, folding a sandwich in half. Assume you had originally layered the lettuce on top of the ham. In a portion of a folded sandwich, the lettuce is now under the ham.
To find younger layers completely under older ones is relatively rare. For the most part, the principle of superposition works fine, because rocks are tilted only slightly, or at least not up to 90° or completely over.
Another concern for stratigraphers is the concept of conformity. Conformity involves the following question: If you see strata, how continuous was their formation? In other words, do they represent an unbroken interval of deposition? If so, over how many thousands, millions, or hundreds of millions of years? Stratigraphers are excited to find a region of rock with a high degree of conformity, because then they can study an unbroken record of geological history.
However, numerous breaks can be found in the rock record of various regions of the world's strata. Such breaks in sedimentation are called unconformities, which are classified into three basic types. Study Figure 8.1 and then read the more detailed descriptions when you return to the text.
An angular unconformity occurs when a relatively horizontal stratum sits on top of a number of tilted strata, which seem to have been sliced off horizontally. What happened? At some point back in time, a formation of horizontal strata was tilted at angle. Then it was subjected to erosion, which wore it down across the layers. Next, it perhaps ended up again under water, at which time new layers of sediment were deposited. This situation results in what is known as an angular unconformity. A large interval of time passed between the deposition of the tilted layers and the deposition of the horizontal layer.
The second type of unconformity is called a disconformity. Nothing is very difficult about this type; seimentation simply stopped for a long time interval and then resumed. For example, if the sea level falls (which happens, because of plate tectonics), the layers of sediment that had been under water will now be above water and will no longer be receiving what would have been their next bed of sediment. Then if the sea rises again, sedimentation resumes. The disconformity makes life tough for geologists, because they have no information about the missing interval of time.
A nonconformity is the third type of unconformity. A nonconformity has igneous or metamorphic rock underneath sedimentary strata. For example, as you go down deeper into the continents, what you tend to find is more and more igneous rock. The place where sedimentary rock ends and igneous rock begins is a nonconformity. You cannot tell exactly what happened at that spot and what the time interval was step by step like you can when the sediments have been laid down in conforming layers.
For another example of how nature creates a nonconformity, imagine underwater sedimentary strata that are then lifted up to become continental land. Next, volcanism spreads lava over the surface to form a thick layer of igneous rock. Eventually, the surface is again under water and new sedimentation begins on top of the igneous bed. That's a nonconformity. The sedimentation was not continuous.
Stratigraphers search across large geographical regions for what they call correlations. Correlations occur when a stratum of rock is clearly the same over hugely separated regions. If the geologists can figure out something about the stratum in one region—its age, for example—then they know the age of the stratum in other places. For example, over the last two million years, there have been widespread ash layers from tremendous volcanic explosions, which covered large regions of the western United States. Because the same ash layer is found in different places, and we know that the ash layer was deposited at the same time in all these places, we can use the ash layer to start unraveling the stratigraphic story at all the places just before and just after the eruption.
Another way to find correlations is to seek the same fossils in similar-looking beds of sedimentary rock. Particularly important to geologists are what is known as index fossils. A extinct ancient species can be an index fossil if the species was highly biologically distinctive (unique) and it existed on Earth for only a relatively brief and confined period of time. For example, assume it can be determined that a particular ancient species of trilobite (a crab-type creature) existed for only ten million years, say, from 500 to 490 million years ago. Then wherever you find rock with that species of trilobite, you know the rock's approximate age
How old is the earth and its various rocks? How can geologists be so sure when they say that a given igneous layer of rock is 200 million years old, or 1.5 billion years old?
One early attempt to date geological time used the ocean's salinity. We know how much salt goes into the ocean by the world's rivers. We also know the total amount of salt in the ocean. Assuming that the flows of rivers have stayed approximately constant over long periods of time, and assuming that the ocean started off as fresh water, one might compute how long the rivers have been carrying salt to the ocean. In 1889, the answer was first calculated as 90 million years. That's a long time but still way too low, compared to our modern values for the scale of geological time. (Some of the assumptions were not good.)
Modern accurate methods use atomic clocks. The key concept to understanding these clocks is the fact that the radioactive breakdown of certain isotopes occurs at a known rate. First, we will review isotopes and radioactive decay. Then we will discuss how these facts are used in geological dating.
Recall that atoms of a particular element all have the same number of protons in their nuclei. Further more, the number of protons determine the charge of each nucleus, thus the number of electrons around each nucleus, and thus the chemistry of the element. But atoms of elements can vary in the number of neutrons in their nuclei. These variants are called isotopes.
Here's an example. The element carbon comes in three isotopes: carbon-12, carbon-13, and carbon-14. Most of the carbon in your body is carbon-12, a stable isotope with six protons and six neutrons in the atomic nucleus. Carbon-13 is also a stable isotope with six protons and seven neutrons in its nucleus. Finally, we come to carbon-14, a radioactive isotope (sometimes called a radioisotope). The atomic nucleus of carbon-14 has six protons and eight neutrons.
A stable isotope is an atom whose nucleus stays the same, basically forever. A radioactive isotope is different in that the energy balance in the nucleus between protons and neutrons is not right and the nucleus will undergo radioactive decay. At some point in time, that is randomly determined. The nucleus spontaneously shifts to a new form during radioactive decay, in the direction of more stability. Five different kinds of radioactive decay exist, but the details of all five do not concern us here. It is enough to know that in the case of carbon-14, one neutron in the nucleus will spontaneously transform into a proton, with the emission of an electron.
Note that in the case of the radioactive decay of carbon-14, when the neutron changes into the proton, the resulting new nucleus, instead of the six protons and eight neutrons of carbon-14, now has seven protons and seven neutrons. The atomic element itself has changed, from carbon with six protons, into nitrogen with seven protons. The electron that is shot out of the decaying atom's nucleus is energy given off by the nuclear transformation, and the electron can be recorded by human instruments.
A remarkable fact has been discovered from measuring the number of decay events from a mass of radioactive isotopes (for example, measuring the rate of electrons given off by a mass of carbon-14). The number of decay events is proportional to the mass. In other words, doubling the mass doubles the number of decay events. Cutting the mass to one-quarter cuts the decay events to one-quarter. This fact seems simple, but as we will see, it has profound implications for measuring the ages of rocks.
Let us consider, then, a particular mass M of some radioisotope, say, of carbon-14. It decays at a rate R (measured as R number of events per second). Because the carbon-14 turns into nitrogen as it decays, the mass of the carbon-14 decreases over time. As some point, it reaches a mass 0.5 M, or half its original mass M. At that time, the decay rate will also be half and equal to 0.5 R. Now more time passes, and as atoms of carbon-14 one by one turn into nitrogen, eventually the mass 0.25 M is reached. At that time, the decay rate is 0.25 R.
Theory shows this fact to be true and measurements have verified it: The time it takes for M to change to 0.5 M is the same time it takes for 0.5 M to change to 0.25 M. In other words, the amount of time it takes for any given amount of mass to decay to half that mass is always the same. This time is called the half-life. The half-life is the amount of time taken for half the atoms in a mass of radioactive atoms to undergo nuclear decay.
The half-life varies for different radioactive elements. Here are some examples for a few of the radioactive elements that have been proven most useful for dating geological times: carbon-14, half-life of 5,730 years; potassium-40, half-life of 1.3 billion years; uranium-238, half-life of 4.5 billion years.
The half-life determines the interval of time over which a certain radioisotope can be useful for dating. For example, carbon-14, with a relatively short half-life, is valuable for dating ruins of the Pueblo Indians of ancient America. They used wood (which contains carbon) to build roofs for their cliff dwellings. In contrast, carbon-14 is not useful for dating rocks a billion years old. First of all, even if such ancient rocks do contain carbon (as the carbonate rocks do), so many half-lives have passed that the amount of carbon-14 left would be not measurable; it would essentially be zero.
To perform the dating of a rock, we would need to know the original mass of a radioisotope that was in the rock at the time of the rock's formation and the current, reduced mass of the radioisotope in the rock. By comparing the masses, we can then compute how many half-lives have passed to lower the original amount of radioisotope to the current amount. For example, if the original amount of carbon-14 in some ancient charcoal is M and the current amount is M, we know that three half-lives have passed (count them: M → M/2 → M/4 → M/8). Because we know that the half-life of carbon-14 is 5,730 years, we then know that the sample is 17,190 years old (3 × 5,730 years).
This strategy for calculation works well in the case of carbon-14, because carbon-containing materials (such as wood) started off with about the same ratios of carbon-14 as when they grew during their lives (because the carbon-14 comes from the atmosphere). But in the case of the very important radioisotope potassium-40, which is used for dating rocks, we don't know how much potassium-40 was in the original rock. What can scientists do?
What is done in the case of potassium-40 is to measure not only the current amount of potassium-40 in a rock, but also the amount of argon-40. Why? Argon-40 is a daughter product of potassium-40 radioactive decay. In other words, when potassium-40 undergoes radioactive decay, argon-40 is created. (What is the daughter product of carbon-14? You'll be asked that in one of the practice questions.)
Here's an important fact about igneous rocks. Magma contains no argon-40, because the argon-40 is driven off by heat. Thus, when any ancient rock that contains a mixture of potassium-40 and argon-40 is heated into magma, it loses its argon-40, but it keeps its potassium-40. When the magma solidifies to become a new igneous rock, the atomic clock of potassium-40 is restarted.
Thus, when igneous rock forms, it contains a certain amount of potassium-40 but zero argon-40. Here we must introduce one slight complication to the story of the radioactive decay of potassium-40. Potassium-40 decays into not one but two daughter products. This happens randomly for any given atom, but with perfect regularity for a mass of potassium-40 as a whole. Twelve percent of the decay goes into argon-40 and 88% of the decay goes into calcium-40, but this fact doesn't affect our analysis, because these percentages of daughter products are constant. It doesn't matter what minerals the potassium is in. Neither do the temperatures or pressures.
So let's return to a newly formed igneous rock with an unknown amount of potassium-40 and no (zero) argon-40. Millions or billions of years later, a modern geologist takes a sample of that rock and measures the amounts of both potassium-40 and argon-40. The rock today contains argon-40 because some of the potassium-40 over time has changed into argon-40. So we know that the rock formed with zero argon-40, and we know today's amounts of potassium-40 and argon-40. These numbers are all that are needed to calculate the age of the rock.
We won't do the calculation here, except to layout the logic. Measuring the amount of argon-40 in a piece of igneous rock allows us to calculate how much potassium-40 underwent radioactive decay since the solidification of the rock (using the fact that 12% of the decayed potassium-40 goes to argon). Then, measuring how much potassium-40 is currently in the rock, we can compute how much original potassium-40 was in the rock by adding to the current amount the amount that must have been lost through radioactive decay, computed from the argon-40 measurement.
Then, because we know the original and current amounts of potassium-40, as in our example with carbon-14, we can compute how many half-lives have passed since the igneous rock was formed. Because the half-life of potassium-40 is 1.3 billion years, it is certainly possible that some rocks will have gone through several half-lives of potassium-40 since the time they were born as igneous rocks. But it's even more common, of course, to find igneous rocks not as old as one half-life of potassium-40. That's okay. Scientists can easily measure fractions of a half-life. Indeed, potassium-40 and argon-40 are so useful as a pair of measurements (called potassium-argon dating) for the precise dating of rocks that the measurements can even be used for volcanic rocks as young as 50,000 years old. At the other end of the time scale, potassium-argon dating can measure rocks that go back to the oldest rocks we have on Earth. We can use the various radioisotopes to perform atomic dating to find out when the first rocks on Earth were formed, and it turns out that they are 3.9 billion years old.
When astronauts brought back rocks from the moon, starting in 1969 and for the few years of the Apollo Program, those rocks were dated in laboratories on Earth. The oldest moon rocks (all igneous) are about 4.1 billion years old. Why would the moon rocks be older than rocks on Earth? As we've seen, the moon formed when a rogue body, about the size of Mars, smashed into the earth very early in Earth's history, so you would think their oldest rocks would be about the same age. On Earth, the forces of plate tectonics have continuously reshaped the surface. So we can assume that rocks older than 3.9 billion years did exist at one time on Earth, but none remain on the continents.
The atomic dating can also be used for meteorites that land on Earth from space. Meteorites clock in at about 4.6 billion years old. This well-verified date of the meteorites is taken to be the time when the earth and all the other planets of the solar system condensed out of a huge gas nebula in space, which also formed the sun. So the earth as a planet is 4.6 billion years old or, rounded to the nearest half-billion, about 4.5 billion years old.
The Geological Time Scale
Planet Earth condensed from a gas nebula and was brought together by gravity about 4.6 billion years ago. The entire time from that fiery origin to today has been carefully divided by geologists into various named intervals of time. This is something like the way our calendar divides the year into months, weeks, days, hours, and so forth.
To create the geologic time scale, geologists have relied to a large extent on the presence of different kinds of organisms, preserved as fossils, who have inhabited the earth at different times. For example, thanks to the movie Jurassic Park, most people know that one of the times that dinosaurs lived is called the Jurassic. As we go back in time, the fossil record becomes more and more incomplete. Indeed, for much of Earth's history, the only fossils are tiny, single-celled, mineralized organisms that don't look very distinct because they are only round, microscopic spheres or elongated rods in rock. So the divisions of geologic time are not as finely resolved back in the early Earth as the divisions are within, say, the last 100 million years.
The biggest scale of the divisions (like dividing the year into months) are called eons. The earliest eon was the Hadean (time of "hell"). There were still many bombardments from space coming to Earth. It lasted to about 3.9 billion years ago.
The next eon was the Archean, from 3.9 to 2.5 billion years ago. Life originated early in the Archean, but it was all singled-celled.
After the Archean came the Proterozoic, about 2,500 to 680 million years ago. (We've switched to millions of years ago, because the dating becomes better.) This eon saw a great rise in atmospheric oxygen about 2,000 million years ago. Near the end of the Proterozoic, multicelled life evolved (organisms with many cells to their bodies, such as simple worms).
Skipping the Vendian, we come to the eon called Paleozoic (545–250 million years ago). It started with an explosion of new kinds of life forms. By the end of the Paleozoic, plants had evolved to tall trees on land, and the dominant life forms on land were giant amphibians and early reptiles.
Next came the eon we are currently in, called the Phanerozoic. It is divided into eras, which are subdivided into periods. For example, the Mesozoic era (248–65 million years ago) is itself subdivided into three main periods called Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous. A mass extinction at 65 million years ago ended the dinosaurs and the Mesozoic era.
The final era (the subdivision of the Phanerozoic called the Cenozoic) is the age of mammals, beginning 65 million years ago and lasting until today. The most recent—two million years or so—is the epoch (a subdivision of a period) called the Pleistocene, a time of the growth and then retreat of giant ice sheets, in cycles of about 100,000 years each. At the final deglaciation, about 10,000 years ago, geologists end the Pleistocene and start a new epoch, called the Holocene.
During these billions of years, plate tectonics have shaped Earth's surface. Continents have combined and split repeatedly, oceans have widened and disappeared, mountain ranges have risen and then eroded to hills, and rocks formed under water in sed iments have been lifted into plateaus and mountains.
To see the geologic time scale in more detail, study Figure 8.2. Then move right on to the practice questions. You'll need to use the figure to help you with some of the answers.
Practice problems of this concept can be found at: Dating the Earth Practice Questions
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