The Radiometric Dating Game
Radioactive elements of use in geological dating have relatively long and much research has been carried out on how to interpret such results. rocks strongly indicate that the Earth and meteorites formed at the same time. analyzing meteorites and moon rocks—have always been done on Earth. Many of the experiments carried out by the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission's Over time, atoms of the radioactive form of potassium—an isotope Although the potassium-argon method has been used to date rocks on. Earth sciences - Radiometric dating: In , shortly after the discovery of This figure is of the same order as ages obtained for certain meteorites and lunar rocks. These experiments are carried out at elevated temperatures and pressures.
In all cases, it is the obligation of the investigator making the determinations to include enough tests to indicate that the absolute age quoted is valid within the limits stated.
In other words, it is the obligation of geochronologists to try to prove themselves wrong by including a series of cross-checks in their measurements before they publish a result.
Such checks include dating a series of ancient units with closely spaced but known relative ages and replicate analysis of different parts of the same rock body with samples collected at widely spaced localities.
The importance of internal checks as well as interlaboratory comparisons becomes all the more apparent when one realizes that geochronology laboratories are limited in number.
Because of the expensive equipment necessary and the combination of geologic, chemical, and laboratory skills required, geochronology is usually carried out by teams of experts. Most geologists must rely on geochronologists for their results. In turn, the geochronologist relies on the geologist for relative ages. Evaluation and presentation schemes in dating Origin of radioactive elements used In order for a radioactive parent-daughter pair to be useful for dating, many criteria must be met.
This section examines these criteria and explores the ways in which the reliability of the ages measured can be assessed. Because geologic materials are diverse in their origin and chemical content and datable elements are unequally distributed, each method has its strengths and weaknesses.
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Of these, only the radioisotopes with extremely long half-lives remain. It should be mentioned in passing that some of the radioisotopes present early in the history of the solar system and now completely extinct have been recorded in meteorites in the form of the elevated abundances of their daughter isotopes.
Analysis of such meteorites makes it possible to estimate the time that elapsed between element creation and meteorite formation. Natural elements that are still radioactive today produce daughter products at a very slow rate; hence, it is easy to date very old minerals but difficult to obtain the age of those formed in the recent geologic past.
This follows from the fact that the amount of daughter isotopes present is so small that it is difficult to measure. The difficulty can be overcome to some degree by achieving lower background contamination, by improving instrument sensitivity, and by finding minerals with abundant parent isotopes. Geologic events of the not-too-distant past are more easily dated by using recently formed radioisotopes with short half-lives that produce more daughter products per unit time.
Two sources of such isotopes exist. In one case, intermediate isotopes in the uranium or thorium decay chain can become isolated in certain minerals because of differences in chemical properties and, once fixed, can decay to new isotopes, providing a measure of the time elapsed since they were isolated.
To understand this, one needs to know that though uranium U does indeed decay to lead Pbit is not a one-step process. In fact, this is a multistep process involving the expulsion of eight alpha particles and six beta particlesalong with a considerable amount of energy. There exists a series of different elements, each of them in a steady state where they form at the same rate as they disintegrate.
The number present is proportional to their decay rate, with long-lived members being more abundant. Because all these isotopes have relatively short half-lives, none remains since the formation of the elements, but instead they are continuously provided by the decay of the long-lived parent. One of the best ways of showing that an age-date is correct is to confirm it with one or more different dating Some young-Earth proponents recently reported that rocks were dated by the potassium-argon method to be a several million years old when they are really only a few years old.
But the potassium-argon method, with its long half-life, was never intended to date rocks only 25 years old. These people have only succeeded in correctly showing that one can fool a single radiometric dating method when one uses it improperly.
The false radiometric ages of several million years are due to parentless argon, as described here, and first reported in the literature some fifty years ago. Note that it would be extremely unlikely for another dating method to agree on these bogus ages. Getting agreement between more than one dating method is a recommended practice. Although potassium-argon is one of the simplest dating methods, there are still some cases where it does not agree with other methods.
When this does happen, it is usually because the gas within bubbles in the rock is from deep underground rather than from the air. This gas can have a higher concentration of argon escaping from the melting of older rocks.
This is called parentless argon because its parent potassium is not in the rock being dated, and is also not from the air. In these slightly unusual cases, the date given by the normal potassium-argon method is too old. However, scientists in the mids came up with a way around this problem, the argon-argon method, discussed in the next section. Even though it has been around for nearly half a century, the argon-argon method is seldom discussed by groups critical of dating methods.
This method uses exactly the same parent and daughter isotopes as the potassium-argon method. In effect, it is a different way of telling time from the same clock.
Instead of simply comparing the total potassium with the non-air argon in the rock, this method has a way of telling exactly what and how much argon is directly related to the potassium in the rock. In the argon-argon method the rock is placed near the center of a nuclear reactor for a period of hours.
A nuclear reactor emits a very large number of neutrons, which are capable of changing a small amount of the potassium into argon Argon is not found in nature because it has only a year half-life. This half-life doesn't affect the argon-argon dating method as long as the measurements are made within about five years of the neutron dose. The rock is then heated in a furnace to release both the argon and the argon representing the potassium for analysis.
The heating is done at incrementally higher temperatures and at each step the ratio of argon to argon is measured.
If the argon is from decay of potassium within the rock, it will come out at the same temperatures as the potassium-derived argon and in a constant proportion. On the other hand, if there is some excess argon in the rock it will cause a different ratio of argon to argon for some or many of the heating steps, so the different heating steps will not agree with each other.
A typical argon-argon dating plot. Figure 2 is an example of a good argon-argon date. The fact that this plot is flat shows that essentially all of the argon is from decay of potassium within the rock.
The potassium content of the sample is found by multiplying the argon by a factor based on the neutron exposure in the reactor. When this is done, the plateau in the figure represents an age date based on the decay of potassium to argon There are occasions when the argon-argon dating method does not give an age even if there is sufficient potassium in the sample and the rock was old enough to date.
This most often occurs if the rock experienced a high temperature usually a thousand degrees Fahrenheit or more at some point since its formation. If that occurs, some of the argon gas moves around, and the analysis does not give a smooth plateau across the extraction temperature steps. An example of an argon-argon analysis that did not yield an age date is shown in Figure 3.
Notice that there is no good plateau in this plot. In some instances there will actually be two plateaus, one representing the formation age, and another representing the time at which the heating episode occurred.
But in most cases where the system has been disturbed, there simply is no date given. The important point to note is that, rather than giving wrong age dates, this method simply does not give a date if the system has been disturbed. This is also true of a number of other igneous rock dating methods, as we will describe below.
In nearly all of the dating methods, except potassium-argon and the associated argon-argon method, there is always some amount of the daughter product already in the rock when it cools. Using these methods is a little like trying to tell time from an hourglass that was turned over before all of the sand had fallen to the bottom. One can think of ways to correct for this in an hourglass: One could make a mark on the outside of the glass where the sand level started from and then repeat the interval with a stopwatch in the other hand to calibrate it.
Or if one is clever she or he could examine the hourglass' shape and determine what fraction of all the sand was at the top to start with. By knowing how long it takes all of the sand to fall, one could determine how long the time interval was.
Similarly, there are good ways to tell quite precisely how much of the daughter product was already in the rock when it cooled and hardened. Strontium has several other isotopes that are stable and do not decay. The ratio of strontium to one of the other stable isotopes, say strontium, increases over time as more rubidium turns to strontium Rubidium has a larger atomic diameter than strontium, so rubidium does not fit into the crystal structure of some minerals as well as others.
Figure 4 is an important type of plot used in rubidium-strontium dating. A rubidium-strontium three-isotope plot.
When a rock cools, all its minerals have the same ratio of strontium to strontium, though they have varying amounts of rubidium. As the rock ages, the rubidium decreases by changing to strontium, as shown by the dotted arrows. Minerals with more rubidium gain more strontium, while those with less rubidium do not change as much. Notice that at any given time, the minerals all line up--a check to ensure that the system has not been disturbed.
This works because if there were no rubidium in the sample, the strontium composition would not change. Again, the percentage of anomalies means nothing for the reliability of radiometric dating. Now, igneous bodies can be of two types, extrusive and intrusive. Extrusive bodies are lava that is deposited on the surface.
These cool quickly and have small crystals and form basalt. Intrusive bodies are deposited in the spaces between other rocks. These cool more slowly and have larger crystals, often forming granite. Both of these tend on the average to have wide biostrategraphic limits, meaning that a large spread of ages will be regarded as non-anomalous.
And if we recall that most radiometric dating is done of igneous bodies, one sees that the percentage of anomalies is meaningless.
Thus we really need some evidence that the different methods agree with each other. To make the case even stronger, "Many discrepant results from intrusives are rationalized away immediately by accepting the dates but reinterpreting the biostrategraphic bracket," according to John Woodmorappe. This of course means that the result is no longer anomalous, because the geologic period has been modified to fit the date. Finally, the fact that the great majority of dates are from one method means that the general but not universal agreement of K-Ar dating with itself is sufficient to explain the small percentange of anomalies if it is small.
Back to top Now, the point about agreement is that whatever figure is given about how often ages agree with the expected age, is consistent with the fact that there is no agreement at all between K-Ar and other methods, since so many measurements are done using K-Ar dating.
And one of the strongest arguments for the validity of radiometric dating is that the methods agree. So when one combines all of the above figures, the statement that there are only 10 percent anomalies or 5 percent or whatever, does not have any meaning any more. This statement is made so often as evidence for the reliability of radiometric dating, that the simple evidence that it has no meaning, is astounding to me.
I don't object to having some hard evidence that there are real agreements between different methods on the geologic column, if someone can provide it. The precambrian rock is less interesting because it could have a radiometric age older than life, but this is less likely for the rest of the geologic column.
It's not surprising that K-Ar dates often agree with the assumed dates of their geological periods, since the dates of the geological periods were largely inferred from K-Ar dating. By the way, Ar-Ar dating and K-Ar dating are essentially the same method, so between the two of them we obtain a large fraction of the dates being used. Some information from an article by Robert H. History of the Radioisotope based Geologic Time Scale Before the discovery of radioactivity in the late nineteenth century, a geological time scale had been developed on the basis of estimates for the rates of geological processes such as erosion and sedimentation, with the assumption that these rates had always been essentially uniform.
On the basis of being unacceptably old, many geologists of the time rejected these early twentieth century determinations of rock age from the ratio of daughter to radioactive parent large.
Byincreased confidence in radioisotope dating techniques and the demands of evolution theory for vast amounts of time led to the establishment of an expanded geological time scale. The construction of this time scale was based on about radioisotope ages that were selected because of their agreement with the presumed fossil and geological sequences found in the rocks. Igneous rocks are particularly suited to K-Ar dating. The crucial determiners are therefore volcanic extrusive igneous rocks that are interbedded with sediments, and intrusive igneous rocks that penetrate sediments.
This verifies what I said about almost all of the dates used to define correct ages for geologic periods being K-Ar dates.
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Also, the uncertainty in the branching ratio of potassium decay might mean that there is a fudge factor in K-Ar ages of up to a third, and that the occasional agreements between K-Ar ages and other ages are open to question. So the point is that there is now no reason to believe that radiometric dating is valid on the geologic column. Back to top Another issue is that sometimes the geologic periods of rocks are revised to agree with the ages computed.
This also makes data about percentages of anomalies less meaningful.
It sometimes seems that reasons can always be found for bad dates, especially on the geologic column. If a rock gives a too old date, one says there is excess argon. If it gives a too young date, one says that it was heated recently, or cannot hold its argon. How do we know that maybe all the rocks have excess argon? It looks like geologists are taking the "majority view" of K-Ar dating, but there is no necessary reason why the majority of rocks should give the right date.
The following quote is from the article by Robert H. What is a Radioisotope Age? The relationship of a radioisotope age with real-time must be based on an interpretation. A discussion of rubidium-strontium ages in the Isotope Geoscience Section of the journal, Chemical Geology, specifically states that a radioisotope age determination "does not certainly define a valid age information for a geological system.
Any interpretation will reflect the interpreters presuppositions bias. Back to top Concerning the need for a double blind test, it would seem that there are many places where human judgment could influence the distribution of measured radiometric dates. It could increase the percentage of anomalies, if they were regarded as more interesting.
It could decrease them, if they were regarded as flukes.
Human judgment could determine whether points were collinear enough to form an isochron. It could determine whether a point can justifiably be tossed out and the remaining points used as an isochron. It could determine whether one should accept simple parent-to-daughter K-Ar ratios or whether some treatment needs to be applied first to get better ages.
It could influence whether a spectrum is considered as flat, whether a rock is considered to have undergone leaching or heating, whether a rock is porous or not, or whether a sample has been disturbed in some way. Since one of the main reasons for accepting radiometric dates at least I keep hearing it is that they agree with each other, I think that geologists have an obligation to show that they do agree, specifically on the geologic column.
Since we do not know whether or how much human judgment is influencing radiometric dating, a double blind study is most reasonable. And it should not be restricted to just one or two well-behaved places, but should be as comprehensive as possible. Back to top The following information was sent to me by e-mail: Radiometric dating is predicated on the assumption that throughout the earth's history radioactive decay rates of the various elements have remained constant.
Is this a warranted assumption? Has every radioactive nuclide proceeded on a rigid course of decay at a constant rate? This has been challenged by studies involving Carbon C At the temperature or pressure, collisions with stray cosmic rays or the emanations of other atoms may cause changes other than those of normal disintegration.
It seems very possible that spontaneous disintegration of radioactive elements are related to the action of cosmic rays and the rate of disintegration varying from century to century according to the intensity of the rays. The evidence for a strongly increasing change in the cosmic ray influx is most favorable especially in light of the decay of the earth's magnetic field.
Most geochronologists maintain that pleochroic haloes give evidence that decay constants have not changed. Crystals of biotite, for example, and other minerals in igneous or metamorphic rocks commonly enclose minute specks of minerals containing uranium or thorium.
The a- alpha particles emitted at high velocity by the disintegrating nuclides interact, because of their charge, with electrons of surrounding atoms which slow them down until they finally come to rest in the host material at a distance from their source that depends on their initial kinetic energy and the density and composition of the host.
Where they finally stop to produce lattice distortions and defects there generally occurs discoloring or darkening. Each of the 8 a-particles emitted during the disintegration of U to Pb produces a dark ring in biotite.
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Each ring has its own characteristic radius in a given mineral in this case biotite. This radius measures the kinetic energy, hence the probability of emission of the corresponding a-particle and also the half-life of the parent nuclide according to the Geiger-Nuttall law.
The Geiger-Nuttall law is an empirical relation between half-life of the a-emitter and the range in air of the emitted a-particles. If the radii of these haloes from the same nuclide vary, this would imply that the decay rates have varied and would invalidate these series as being actual clocks. Are the radii in the rocks constant in size or are there variable sizes?
Most of the early studies of pleochroic haloes were made by Joly and Henderson. Joly concluded that the decay rates have varied on the basis of his finding a variation of the radii for rocks of alleged geological ages. This rather damaging result was explained away saying that enough evidence of correct radii for defferent geologic periods and sufficient variation in the same period have been obtained that one is forced to look for a different explanation of such variations as were observed by Joly.
Measurements were later made in an excellent collection of samples with haloes. It was found that the extent of the haloes around the inclusions varies over a wide range, even with the same nuclear material in the same matrix, but all sizes fall into definite groups.
The measurements are, in microns, 5,7,10,17,20,23,27, and More recent studies have been made by Robert V. Gentry also finds a variation in the haloes leading him to conclude that the decay constants have not been constant in time. Gentry points out an argument for an instantaneous creation of the earth. He noted form his studies of haloes: For the Po half-life of 3 minutes only a matter of minutes could elapse between the formation of the Po and subsequent crystallization of the mica; otherwise the Po would have decayed, and no ring would be visible.
The occurrence of these halo types is quite widespread, one or more types having been observed in the micas from Canada Pre-CambrianSweden, and Japan. So, then, careful scientists have measured variations in halo radii and their measurements indicate a variation in decay rates. The radioactive series then would have no value as time clocks. The following quotation also suggests a cause for a change in the decay rate: Jueneman Industrial Research, Sept.
The remnant of that local big bang is a pulsar called Vela-X PSRwhich recent observations have positioned in the southern sky some 1, light years away, and which is considered to have given rise to the huge Gum Nebula Being so close, the anisotropic neutrino flux of the super-explosion must have had the peculiar characteristic of resetting all our atomic clocks.
This is significant because it is known that neutrinos do interact with the nucleii of atoms, and it is also believed that much of the energy of supernovae is carried away by neutrinos. Back to top Isochrons are an attempt to avoid the need for an absence of daughter element initially in computing radiometric ages. The idea is that one has a parent element, X, a daughter element, Y, and another isotope, Z, of the daughter that is not generated by decay. One would assume that initially, the concentration of Z and Y are proportional, since their chemical properties are very similar.
Radioactive decay would generate a concentration of Y proportional to X. A good general introduction to isochrons from an evolutionary perspective can be found at http: If the concentration of K varies in a rock, that it is unlikely for the concentration of added argon 40 to vary in a way that will yield an isochron.
But if the concentration of K does not vary, then one can still get an isochron if the concentration of the non-radiogenic isotope Ar36 of the daughter product varies.
So let's call an isochron a "super-isochron" if the concentration of the parent element varies from one sample to another. Let's call it a "wimpy isochron" otherwise. The question is, what percentage of isochrons are super-isochrons, and how do their dates agree with the conventional dates for their geologic period? I would think that it may be rare to have a super-isochron.
If one is dealing with minerals that exclude parent or daughter, then one cannot get an isochron at all. If one is dealing with minerals that do not exclude parent and daughter elements, then most likely the parent element will be evenly distributed everywhere, and one will have a wimpy isochron that cannot detect added daughter product, and thus may give unreliable ages.
Whole rock isochrons may also tend to be wimpy, for the same reason. Even super isochrons can yield ages that are too old, due to mixings, however. False K-Ar isochrons can be produced if a lava flow starts out with a lot of excess Ar40 which becomes well mixed, along with potassium. Then while cooling or afterwards, a mixture of Ar36 and Ar40 can enter the rock, more in some places than others. Other isotopes of argon would work as well. I believe that this will produce a good K-Ar isochron, but the age calculated will be meaningless.
There is another way that false isochrons can be produced. For a wimpy isochron, say a K-Ar isochron, we can assume that initially there is a uniform concentration of K everywhere, and concentrations of Ar40 and Ar36 that form an isochron. Then a lot of Ar40 enters, uniformly, through cracks in the rock or heating. This will retain the isochron property, but will make the isochron look too old. My reasoning was that if the lava is thoroughly mixed, then the concentration of parent material should be fairly constant.
If the concentration of parent substance is not constant, it could indicate that the lava is not thoroughly mixed. Or it could have other explanations.
If the lava is not thoroughly mixed, it is possible to obtain an isochron from the mixing of two different sources, in which case the radiometric age is inherited from the sources, and does not necessarily yield the age of the flow. Someone pointed out to me that many Rb-Sr isochrons are super isochrons. I find this information very interesting, and thank him for it. I'd be curious to know which strata they occur in, as my main interest is the geologic column of Cambrian and above.