Argon–argon dating

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Argonargon (or 40Ar/39Ar) dating is a radiometric dating method invented to supersede potassium-argon (K/Ar) dating in accuracy. The older method required splitting samples into two for separate potassium and argon measurements, while the newer method requires only one rock fragment or mineral grain and uses a single measurement of argon isotopes. 40Ar/39Ar dating relies on neutron irradiation from a nuclear reactor to convert a stable form of potassium (39 K) into the radioactive 39 Ar. As long as a standard of known age is co-irradiated with unknown samples, it is possible to use a single measurement of argon isotopes to calculate the 40K/40Ar* ratio, and thus to calculate the age of the unknown sample. 40Ar* refers to the radiogenic 40Ar, i.e. the 40Ar produced from radioactive decay of 40K. 40Ar* does not include atmospheric argon adsorbed to the surface or inherited through diffusion and its calculated value is derived from measuring the 36Ar (which is assumed to be of atmospheric origin) and assuming that 40Ar is found in a constant ratio to 36Ar in atmospheric gases.

Argon Chemical element with atomic number 18

Argon is a chemical element with symbol Ar and atomic number 18. It is in group 18 of the periodic table and is a noble gas. Argon is the third-most abundant gas in the Earth's atmosphere, at 0.934%. It is more than twice as abundant as water vapor, 23 times as abundant as carbon dioxide, and more than 500 times as abundant as neon. Argon is the most abundant noble gas in Earth's crust, comprising 0.00015% of the crust.

Radiometric dating, radioactive dating or radioisotope dating is a technique used to date materials such as rocks or carbon, in which trace radioactive impurities were selectively incorporated when they were formed. The method compares the abundance of a naturally occurring radioactive isotope within the material to the abundance of its decay products, which form at a known constant rate of decay. The use of radiometric dating was first published in 1907 by Bertram Boltwood and is now the principal source of information about the absolute age of rocks and other geological features, including the age of fossilized life forms or the age of the Earth itself, and can also be used to date a wide range of natural and man-made materials.

Potassium Chemical element with atomic number 19

Potassium is a chemical element with symbol K and atomic number 19. It was first isolated from potash, the ashes of plants, from which its name derives. In the periodic table, potassium is one of the alkali metals. All of the alkali metals have a single valence electron in the outer electron shell, which is easily removed to create an ion with a positive charge – a cation, which combines with anions to form salts. Potassium in nature occurs only in ionic salts. Elemental potassium is a soft silvery-white alkali metal that oxidizes rapidly in air and reacts vigorously with water, generating sufficient heat to ignite hydrogen emitted in the reaction, and burning with a lilac-colored flame. It is found dissolved in sea water, and is part of many minerals.



The sample is generally crushed and single crystals of a mineral or fragments of rock hand-selected for analysis. These are then irradiated to produce 39Ar from 39K. The sample is then degassed in a high-vacuum mass spectrometer via a laser or resistance furnace. Heating causes the crystal structure of the mineral (or minerals) to degrade, and, as the sample melts, trapped gases are released. The gas may include atmospheric gases, such as carbon dioxide, water, nitrogen, and argon, and radiogenic gases, like argon and helium, generated from regular radioactive decay over geologic time. The abundance of 40Ar* increases with the age of the sample, though the rate of increase decays exponentially with the half-life of 40K, which is 1.248 billion years.

Age equation

The age of a sample is given by the age equation:

where λ is the radioactive decay constant of 40K (approximately 5.5 x 10−10 year−1, corresponding to a half-life of approximately 1.25 billion years), J is the J-factor (parameter associated with the irradiation process), and R is the 40Ar*/39Ar ratio. The J factor relates to the fluence of the neutron bombardment during the irradiation process; a denser flow of neutron particles will convert more atoms of 39K to 39Ar than a less dense one.

Relative dating only

The 40Ar/39Ar method only measures relative dates. In order for an age to be calculated by the 40Ar/39Ar technique, the J parameter must be determined by irradiating the unknown sample along with a sample of known age for a standard. Because this (primary) standard ultimately cannot be determined by 40Ar/39Ar, it must be first determined by another dating method. The method most commonly used to date the primary standard is the conventional K/Ar technique. [1] An alternative method of calibrating the used standard is astronomical tuning (also known as orbital tuning), which arrives at a slightly different age. [2]

Orbital tuning refers to the process of adjusting the time scale of a geologic or climate record so that the observed fluctuations correspond to the Milankovitch cycles in the Earth's orbital motion. Because changes in the Earth's orbit affect the amount and distribution of sunlight the Earth receives, such changes are expected to introduce periodic climate changes on time scales of 20-100 kyr. Long records of sedimentation or climate should record such variations; however, such records often have poorly constrained age scales. As a result, scientists will sometimes adjust the timing of the features in their records to match the predictions of orbital theory in the hopes of improving the dating accuracy. However, "overtuning" can result in apparent features that have no basis in the real data, such as occurred with the original SPECMAP record.


The primary use for 40Ar/39Ar geochronology is dating metamorphic and igneous minerals. 40Ar/39Ar is unlikely to provide the age of intrusions of granite as the age typically reflects the time when a mineral cooled through its closure temperature. However, in a metamorphic rock that has not exceeded its closure temperature the age likely dates the crystallization of the mineral. Dating of movement on fault systems is also possible with the 40Ar/39Ar method. Different minerals have different closure temperatures; biotite is ~300°C, muscovite is about 400°C and hornblende has a closure temperature of ~550°C. Thus, a granite containing all three minerals will record three different "ages" of emplacement as it cools down through these closure temperatures. Thus, although a crystallization age is not recorded, the information is still useful in constructing the thermal history of the rock.

Granite A common type of intrusive, felsic, igneous rock with granular structure

Granite is a common type of felsic intrusive igneous rock that is granular and phaneritic in texture. Granites can be predominantly white, pink, or gray in color, depending on their mineralogy. The word "granite" comes from the Latin granum, a grain, in reference to the coarse-grained structure of such a holocrystalline rock. Strictly speaking, granite is an igneous rock with between 20% and 60% quartz by volume, and at least 35% of the total feldspar consisting of alkali feldspar, although commonly the term "granite" is used to refer to a wider range of coarse-grained igneous rocks containing quartz and feldspar.

In radiometric dating, closure temperature or blocking temperature refers to the temperature of a system, such as a mineral, at the time given by its radiometric date. In physical terms, the closure temperature is the temperature at which a system has cooled so that there is no longer any significant diffusion of the parent or daughter isotopes out of the system and into the external environment. The concept's initial mathematical formulation was presented in a seminal paper by Martin H. Dodson, "Closure temperature in cooling geochronological and petrological systems" in the journal Contributions to Mineralogy and Petrology, 1973, with refinements to a usable experimental formulation by other scientists in later years. This temperature varies broadly among different minerals and also differs depending on the parent and daughter atoms being considered. It is specific to a particular material and isotopic system.

Biotite micas between, or close to, the annite-phlogopite and siderophyllite-eastonite joins; dark micas without lithium

Biotite is a common phyllosilicate mineral within the mica group, with the approximate chemical formula K(Mg,Fe)
. More generally, it refers to the dark mica series, primarily a solid-solution series between the iron-endmember annite, and the magnesium-endmember phlogopite; more aluminous end-members include siderophyllite. Biotite was named by J.F.L. Hausmann in 1847 in honor of the French physicist Jean-Baptiste Biot, who performed early research into the many optical properties of mica.

Dating minerals may provide age information on a rock, but assumptions must be made. Minerals usually only record the last time they cooled down below the closure temperature, and this may not represent all of the events which the rock has undergone, and may not match the age of intrusion. Thus, discretion and interpretation of age dating is essential. 40Ar/39Ar geochronology assumes that a rock retains all of its 40Ar after cooling past the closing temperature and that this was properly sampled during analysis.

This technique allows the errors involved in K-Ar dating to be checked. Argon–argon dating has the advantage of not requiring determinations of potassium. Modern methods of analysis allow individual regions of crystals to be investigated. This method is important as it allows crystals forming and cooling during different events to be identified.


One problem with argon-argon dating has been a slight discrepancy with other methods of dating. [3] Recent work by Kuiper [4] (see also Kerr [5] ) reports that a correction of 0.65% is needed. Thus the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction (when the dinosaurs died out) - previously dated at 65.0 or 65.5 million years ago - is more accurately dated to 66.0 Ma. Similarly, the Permian-Triassic extinction is now dated at 252.5 Ma, which is effectively coincident with the age determined by other means for Siberian Traps basalt flows.

Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event Mass extinction event ending the Mesozoic Era

The Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) extinction event, also known as the Cretaceous–Tertiary (K–T) extinction, was a sudden mass extinction of some three-quarters of the plant and animal species on Earth, approximately 66 million years ago. With the exception of some ectothermic species such as the leatherback sea turtle and crocodiles, no tetrapods weighing more than 25 kilograms (55 lb) survived. It marked the end of the Cretaceous period and with it, the entire Mesozoic Era, opening the Cenozoic Era that continues today.

Permian–Triassic extinction event most severe extinction event of Earths chronology, occurring approx 252 million years ago, ending the Paleozoic era (and the Permian period) and beginning the Mesozoic era (and the Triassic period)

The Permian–Triassicextinction event, colloquially known as the Great Dying, the End-Permian Extinction or the Great Permian Extinction, occurred about 252 Ma ago, forming the boundary between the Permian and Triassic geologic periods, as well as between the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras. It is the Earth's most severe known extinction event, with up to 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species becoming extinct. It was the largest known mass extinction of insects. Some 57% of all biological families and 83% of all genera became extinct. Because so much biodiversity was lost, the recovery of land-dwelling life took significantly longer than after any other extinction event, possibly up to 10 million years. Studies in Bear Lake County, near Paris, Idaho, showed a relatively quick rebound in a localized marine ecosystem, taking around 2 million years to recover, suggesting that the impact of the extinction may have been felt less severely in some areas than others.

Siberian Traps A large region of volcanic rock in Russia

The Siberian Traps is a large region of volcanic rock, known as a large igneous province, in Siberia, Russia. The massive eruptive event that formed the traps is one of the largest-known volcanic events in the last 500 million years.

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Potassium–argon dating, abbreviated K–Ar dating, is a radiometric dating method used in geochronology and archaeology. It is based on measurement of the product of the radioactive decay of an isotope of potassium (K) into argon (Ar). Potassium is a common element found in many materials, such as micas, clay minerals, tephra, and evaporites. In these materials, the decay product 40
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Potassium–calcium dating, abbreviated K–Ca dating, is a radiometric dating method used in geochronology. It is based upon measuring the ratio of a parent isotope of potassium (40K) to a daughter isotope of calcium (40Ca). This form of radioactive decay is accomplished through beta decay.

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  1. New Mexico Bureau of Geology
  2. Utrecht faculty of Geosciences
  3. P. R. Renne, D. B. Karner, K. R. Ludwig, Absolute Ages Aren't Exactly, Science 282:1840 (4 Dec. 1998)
  4. K. F. Kuiper, et al., Synchronizing Rock Clocks of Earth History, Science 320:500 (25 Apr. 2008)
  5. R. A. Kerr, Two Geological Clocks Finally Keeping the Same Time, Science 320:434 (25 Apr. 2008)