Acknowledgements Introduction his document discusses the way radiometric dating and stratigraphic principles are used to establish the conventional geological time scale. It is not about the theory behind radiometric dating methods, it is about their application, and it therefore assumes the reader has some familiarity with the technique already refer to "Other Sources" for more information. As an example of how they are used, radiometric dates from geologically simple, fossiliferous Cretaceous rocks in western North America are compared to the geological time scale.
To get to that point, there is also a historical discussion and description of non-radiometric dating methods. A common form of criticism is to cite geologically complicated situations where the application of radiometric dating is very challenging. These are often characterised as the norm, rather than the exception.
I thought it would be useful to present an example where the geology is simple, and unsurprisingly, the method does work well, to show the quality of data that would have to be invalidated before a major revision of the geologic time scale could be accepted by conventional scientists.
Geochronologists do not claim that radiometric dating is foolproof no scientific method is , but it does work reliably for most samples. It is these highly consistent and reliable samples, rather than the tricky ones, that have to be falsified for "young Earth" theories to have any scientific plausibility, not to mention the need to falsify huge amounts of evidence from other techniques.
This document is partly based on a prior posting composed in reply to Ted Holden. My thanks to both him and other critics for motivating me. Background Stratigraphic Principles and Relative Time Much of the Earth's geology consists of successional layers of different rock types, piled one on top of another. The most common rocks observed in this form are sedimentary rocks derived from what were formerly sediments , and extrusive igneous rocks e. The layers of rock are known as "strata", and the study of their succession is known as "stratigraphy".
Fundamental to stratigraphy are a set of simple principles, based on elementary geometry, empirical observation of the way these rocks are deposited today, and gravity. A few principles were recognized and specified later. An early summary of them is found in Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology , published in , and does not differ greatly from a modern formulation: The principle of superposition - in a vertical sequence of sedimentary or volcanic rocks, a higher rock unit is younger than a lower one.
The principle of original horizontality - rock layers were originally deposited close to horizontal. The principle of original lateral extension - A rock unit continues laterally unless there is a structure or change to prevent its extension.
The principle of cross-cutting relationships - a structure that cuts another is younger than the structure that is cut. The principle of inclusion - a structure that is included in another is older than the including structure. The principle of "uniformitarianism" - processes operating in the past were constrained by the same "laws of physics" as operate today.
Note that these are principles. In no way are they meant to imply there are no exceptions. For example, the principle of superposition is based, fundamentally, on gravity.
In order for a layer of material to be deposited, something has to be beneath it to support it. It can't float in mid-air, particularly if the material involved is sand, mud, or molten rock. The principle of superposition therefore has a clear implication for the relative age of a vertical succession of strata.
There are situations where it potentially fails -- for example, in cave deposits. In this situation, the cave contents are younger than both the bedrock below the cave and the suspended roof above. However, note that because of the " principle of cross-cutting relationships" , careful examination of the contact between the cave infill and the surrounding rock will reveal the true relative age relationships, as will the "principle of inclusion" if fragments of the surrounding rock are found within the infill.
Cave deposits also often have distinctive structures of their own e. These geological principles are not assumptions either. Each of them is a testable hypothesis about the relationships between rock units and their characteristics. They are applied by geologists in the same sense that a "null hypothesis" is in statistics -- not necessarily correct, just testable.
In the last or more years of their application, they are often valid, but geologists do not assume they are. They are the "initial working hypotheses" to be tested further by data. Using these principles, it is possible to construct an interpretation of the sequence of events for any geological situation, even on other planets e.
The simplest situation for a geologist is a "layer cake" succession of sedimentary or extrusive igneous rock units arranged in nearly horizontal layers. In such a situation, the " principle of superposition" is easily applied, and the strata towards the bottom are older, those towards the top are younger.
Sedimentary beds in outcrop, a graphical plot of a stratigraphic section, and a "way up" indicator example: For example, wave ripples have their pointed crests on the "up" side, and more rounded troughs on the "down" side. Many other indicators are commonly present, including ones that can even tell you the angle of the depositional surface at the time "geopetal structures" , "assuming" that gravity was "down" at the time, which isn't much of an assumption: In more complicated situations, like in a mountain belt, there are often faults, folds, and other structural complications that have deformed and "chopped up" the original stratigraphy.
Despite this, the "principle of cross cutting relationships" can be used to determine the sequence of deposition, folds, and faults based on their intersections -- if folds and faults deform or cut across the sedimentary layers and surfaces, then they obviously came after deposition of the sediments.
You can't deform a structure e. Even in complex situations of multiple deposition, deformation, erosion, deposition, and repeated events, it is possible to reconstruct the sequence of events.
Even if the folding is so intense that some of the strata is now upside down, this fact can be recognized with "way up" indicators. No matter what the geologic situation, these basic principles reliably yield a reconstructed history of the sequence of events, both depositional, erosional, deformational, and others, for the geology of a region.
This reconstruction is tested and refined as new field information is collected, and can be and often is done completely independently of anything to do with other methods e. The reconstructed history of events forms a "relative time scale", because it is possible to tell that event A occurred prior to event B, which occurred prior to event C, regardless of the actual duration of time between them.
Sometimes this study is referred to as "event stratigraphy", a term that applies regardless of the type of event that occurs biologic, sedimentologic, environmental, volcanic, magnetic, diagenetic, tectonic, etc. These simple techniques have widely and successfully applied since at least the early s, and by the early s, geologists had recognized that many obvious similarities existed in terms of the independently-reconstructed sequence of geologic events observed in different parts of the world.
One of the earliest relative time scales based upon this observation was the subdivision of the Earth's stratigraphy and therefore its history , into the "Primary", "Secondary", "Tertiary", and later "Quaternary" strata based mainly on characteristic rock types in Europe. The latter two subdivisions, in an emended form, are still used today by geologists. The earliest, "Primary" is somewhat similar to the modern Paleozoic and Precambrian, and the "Secondary" is similar to the modern Mesozoic.
Another observation was the similarity of the fossils observed within the succession of strata, which leads to the next topic. Biostratigraphy As geologists continued to reconstruct the Earth's geologic history in the s and early s, they quickly recognized that the distribution of fossils within this history was not random -- fossils occurred in a consistent order.
This was true at a regional, and even a global scale. Furthermore, fossil organisms were more unique than rock types, and much more varied, offering the potential for a much more precise subdivision of the stratigraphy and events within it. The recognition of the utility of fossils for more precise "relative dating" is often attributed to William Smith, a canal engineer who observed the fossil succession while digging through the rocks of southern England.
But scientists like Albert Oppel hit upon the same principles at about about the same time or earlier. In Smith's case, by using empirical observations of the fossil succession, he was able to propose a fine subdivision of the rocks and map out the formations of southern England in one of the earliest geological maps Other workers in the rest of Europe, and eventually the rest of the world, were able to compare directly to the same fossil succession in their areas, even when the rock types themselves varied at finer scale.
For example, everywhere in the world, trilobites were found lower in the stratigraphy than marine reptiles. Dinosaurs were found after the first occurrence of land plants, insects, and amphibians. Spore-bearing land plants like ferns were always found before the occurrence of flowering plants. The observation that fossils occur in a consistent succession is known as the "principle of faunal and floral succession".
The study of the succession of fossils and its application to relative dating is known as "biostratigraphy". Each increment of time in the stratigraphy could be characterized by a particular assemblage of fossil organisms, formally termed a biostratigraphic "zone" by the German paleontologists Friedrich Quenstedt and Albert Oppel. These zones could then be traced over large regions, and eventually globally. Groups of zones were used to establish larger intervals of stratigraphy, known as geologic "stages" and geologic "systems".
The time corresponding to most of these intervals of rock became known as geologic "ages" and "periods", respectively. By the end of the s, most of the presently-used geologic periods had been established based on their fossil content and their observed relative position in the stratigraphy e. These terms were preceded by decades by other terms for various geologic subdivisions, and although there was subsequent debate over their exact boundaries e. By the s, fossil succession had been studied to an increasing degree, such that the broad history of life on Earth was well understood, regardless of the debate over the names applied to portions of it, and where exactly to make the divisions.
All paleontologists recognized unmistakable trends in morphology through time in the succession of fossil organisms. This observation led to attempts to explain the fossil succession by various mechanisms.
Perhaps the best known example is Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Note that chronologically, fossil succession was well and independently established long before Darwin's evolutionary theory was proposed in Fossil succession and the geologic time scale are constrained by the observed order of the stratigraphy -- basically geometry -- not by evolutionary theory.
Calibrating the Relative Time Scale For almost the next years, geologists operated using relative dating methods, both using the basic principles of geology and fossil succession biostratigraphy. Various attempts were made as far back as the s to scientifically estimate the age of the Earth, and, later, to use this to calibrate the relative time scale to numeric values refer to "Changing views of the history of the Earth" by Richard Harter and Chris Stassen.
Most of the early attempts were based on rates of deposition, erosion, and other geological processes, which yielded uncertain time estimates, but which clearly indicated Earth history was at least million or more years old. A challenge to this interpretation came in the form of Lord Kelvin's William Thomson's calculations of the heat flow from the Earth, and the implication this had for the age -- rather than hundreds of millions of years, the Earth could be as young as tens of million of years old.
This evaluation was subsequently invalidated by the discovery of radioactivity in the last years of the 19th century, which was an unaccounted for source of heat in Kelvin's original calculations.
With it factored in, the Earth could be vastly older. Estimates of the age of the Earth again returned to the prior methods.
The discovery of radioactivity also had another side effect, although it was several more decades before its additional significance to geology became apparent and the techniques became refined.
Because of the chemistry of rocks, it was possible to calculate how much radioactive decay had occurred since an appropriate mineral had formed, and how much time had therefore expired, by looking at the ratio between the original radioactive isotope and its product, if the decay rate was known.
Many geological complications and measurement difficulties existed, but initial attempts at the method clearly demonstrated that the Earth was very old.
In fact, the numbers that became available were significantly older than even some geologists were expecting -- rather than hundreds of millions of years, which was the minimum age expected, the Earth's history was clearly at least billions of years long. Radiometric dating provides numerical values for the age of an appropriate rock, usually expressed in millions of years.
Therefore, by dating a series of rocks in a vertical succession of strata previously recognized with basic geologic principles see Stratigraphic principles and relative time , it can provide a numerical calibration for what would otherwise be only an ordering of events -- i. The integration of relative dating and radiometric dating has resulted in a series of increasingly precise "absolute" i.
Given the background above, the information used for a geologic time scale can be related like this: How relative dating of events and radiometric numeric dates are combined to produce a calibrated geological time scale.
In this example, the data demonstrates that "fossil B time" was somewhere between and million years ago, and that "fossil A time" is older than million years ago.