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An artistic depiction of the major events in the history of Earth

Geochronology is the science of determining the age of rocks, fossils, and sediments using signatures inherent in the rocks themselves. Absolute geochronology can be accomplished through radioactive isotopes, whereas relative geochronology is provided by tools such as paleomagnetism and stable isotope ratios. By combining multiple geochronological (and biostratigraphic) indicators the precision of the recovered age can be improved.


Geochronology is different in application from biostratigraphy, which is the science of assigning sedimentary rocks to a known geological period via describing, cataloging and comparing fossil floral and faunal assemblages. Biostratigraphy does not directly provide an absolute age determination of a rock, but merely places it within an interval of time at which that fossil assemblage is known to have coexisted. Both disciplines work together hand in hand, however, to the point where they share the same system of naming strata (rock layers) and the time spans utilized to classify sublayers within a stratum.

The science of geochronology is the prime tool used in the discipline of chronostratigraphy, which attempts to derive absolute age dates for all fossil assemblages and determine the geologic history of the Earth and extraterrestrial bodies.

Dating methods

Units in geochronology and stratigraphy [1]
Segments of rock (strata) in chronostratigraphy Time spans in geochronology Notes to
geochronological units
Eonothem Eon 4 total, half a billion years or more
Erathem Era 10 defined, several hundred million years
System Period 22 defined, tens to ~one hundred million years
Series Epoch 34 defined, tens of millions of years
Stage Age 99 defined, millions of years
Chronozone Chron subdivision of an age, not used by the ICS timescale

Radiometric dating

By measuring the amount of radioactive decay of a radioactive isotope with a known half-life, geologists can establish the absolute age of the parent material. A number of radioactive isotopes are used for this purpose, and depending on the rate of decay, are used for dating different geological periods. More slowly decaying isotopes are useful for longer periods of time, but less accurate in absolute years. With the exception of the radiocarbon method, most of these techniques are actually based on measuring an increase in the abundance of a radiogenic isotope, which is the decay-product of the radioactive parent isotope. [2] [3] [4] Two or more radiometric methods can be used in concert to achieve more robust results. [5] Most radiometric methods are suitable for geological time only, but some such as the radiocarbon method and the 40Ar/39Ar dating method can be extended into the time of early human life [6] and into recorded history. [7]

Some of the commonly used techniques are:

Fission-track dating

Cosmogenic nuclide geochronology

A series of related techniques for determining the age at which a geomorphic surface was created (exposure dating), or at which formerly surficial materials were buried (burial dating). [10] Exposure dating uses the concentration of exotic nuclides (e.g. 10Be, 26Al, 36Cl) produced by cosmic rays interacting with Earth materials as a proxy for the age at which a surface, such as an alluvial fan, was created. Burial dating uses the differential radioactive decay of 2 cosmogenic elements as a proxy for the age at which a sediment was screened by burial from further cosmic rays exposure.

Luminescence dating

Luminescence dating techniques observe 'light' emitted from materials such as quartz, diamond, feldspar, and calcite. Many types of luminescence techniques are utilized in geology, including optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), cathodoluminescence (CL), and thermoluminescence (TL). [11] Thermoluminescence and optically stimulated luminescence are used in archaeology to date 'fired' objects such as pottery or cooking stones and can be used to observe sand migration.

Incremental dating

Incremental dating techniques allow the construction of year-by-year annual chronologies, which can be fixed (i.e. linked to the present day and thus calendar or sidereal time) or floating.

Paleomagnetic dating

A sequence of paleomagnetic poles (usually called virtual geomagnetic poles), which are already well defined in age, constitutes an apparent polar wander path (APWP). Such a path is constructed for a large continental block. APWPs for different continents can be used as a reference for newly obtained poles for the rocks with unknown age. For paleomagnetic dating, it is suggested to use the APWP in order to date a pole obtained from rocks or sediments of unknown age by linking the paleopole to the nearest point on the APWP. Two methods of paleomagnetic dating have been suggested: (1) the angular method and (2) the rotation method. [12] The first method is used for paleomagnetic dating of rocks inside of the same continental block. The second method is used for the folded areas where tectonic rotations are possible.


Magnetostratigraphy determines age from the pattern of magnetic polarity zones in a series of bedded sedimentary and/or volcanic rocks by comparison to the magnetic polarity timescale. The polarity timescale has been previously determined by dating of seafloor magnetic anomalies, radiometrically dating volcanic rocks within magnetostratigraphic sections, and astronomically dating magnetostratigraphic sections.


Global trends in isotope compositions, particularly carbon-13 and strontium isotopes, can be used to correlate strata. [13]

Correlation of marker horizons

Tephra horizons in south-central Iceland. The thick and light-to-dark coloured layer at the height of the volcanologist's hands is a marker horizon of rhyolitic-to-basaltic tephra from Hekla. Icelandic tephra.JPG
Tephra horizons in south-central Iceland. The thick and light-to-dark coloured layer at the height of the volcanologist's hands is a marker horizon of rhyolitic-to-basaltic tephra from Hekla.

Marker horizons are stratigraphic units of the same age and of such distinctive composition and appearance that, despite their presence in different geographic sites, there is certainty about their age-equivalence. Fossil faunal and floral assemblages, both marine and terrestrial, make for distinctive marker horizons. [14] Tephrochronology is a method for geochemical correlation of unknown volcanic ash (tephra) to geochemically fingerprinted, dated tephra. Tephra is also often used as a dating tool in archaeology, since the dates of some eruptions are well-established.

Geological hierarchy of chronological periodization

Geochronology, from largest to smallest:

  1. Supereon
  2. Eon
  3. Era
  4. Period
  5. Epoch
  6. Age
  7. Chron

Differences from chronostratigraphy

It is important not to confuse geochronologic and chronostratigraphic units. [15] Geochronological units are periods of time, thus it is correct to say that Tyrannosaurus rex lived during the Late Cretaceous Epoch. [16] Chronostratigraphic units are geological material, so it is also correct to say that fossils of the genus Tyrannosaurus have been found in the Upper Cretaceous Series. [17] In the same way, it is entirely possible to go and visit an Upper Cretaceous Series deposit – such as the Hell Creek deposit where the Tyrannosaurus fossils were found – but it is naturally impossible to visit the Late Cretaceous Epoch as that is a period of time.

See also

Related Research Articles

Radiometric dating, radioactive dating or radioisotope dating is a technique which is 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 Earth itself, and can also be used to date a wide range of natural and man-made materials.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Age of Earth</span> Scientific dating of the age of Earth

The age of Earth is estimated to be 4.54 ± 0.05 billion years (4.54 × 109 years ± 1%). This age may represent the age of Earth's accretion, or core formation, or of the material from which Earth formed. This dating is based on evidence from radiometric age-dating of meteorite material and is consistent with the radiometric ages of the oldest-known terrestrial material and lunar samples.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Stratigraphy</span> Study of rock layers and their formation

Stratigraphy is a branch of geology concerned with the study of rock layers (strata) and layering (stratification). It is primarily used in the study of sedimentary and layered volcanic rocks. Stratigraphy has three related subfields: lithostratigraphy, biostratigraphy, and chronostratigraphy.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Historical geology</span> Study of the geological history of Earth

Historical geology or palaeogeology is a discipline that uses the principles and methods of geology to reconstruct the geological history of Earth. Historical geology examines the vastness of geologic time, measured in billions of years, and investigates changes in the Earth, gradual and sudden, over this deep time. It focuses on geological processes, such as plate tectonics, that have changed the Earth's surface and subsurface over time and the use of methods including stratigraphy, structural geology, paleontology, and sedimentology to tell the sequence of these events. It also focuses on the evolution of life during different time periods in the geologic time scale.

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 feldspars, micas, clay minerals, tephra, and evaporites. In these materials, the decay product 40
is able to escape the liquid (molten) rock but starts to accumulate when the rock solidifies (recrystallizes). The amount of argon sublimation that occurs is a function of the purity of the sample, the composition of the mother material, and a number of other factors. These factors introduce error limits on the upper and lower bounds of dating, so that the final determination of age is reliant on the environmental factors during formation, melting, and exposure to decreased pressure or open air. Time since recrystallization is calculated by measuring the ratio of the amount of 40
accumulated to the amount of 40
remaining. The long half-life of 40
allows the method to be used to calculate the absolute age of samples older than a few thousand years.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Paleomagnetism</span> Study of Earths magnetic field in past

Paleomagnetism is the study of magnetic fields recorded in rocks, sediment, or archeological materials. Geophysicists who specialize in paleomagnetism are called paleomagnetists.

Archaeological science consists of the application of scientific techniques to the analysis of archaeological materials and sites. It is related to methodologies of archaeology. Martinón-Torres and Killick distinguish ‘scientific archaeology’ from ‘archaeological science’. Martinón-Torres and Killick claim that ‘archaeological science’ has promoted the development of high-level theory in archaeology. However, Smith rejects both concepts of archaeological science because neither emphasize falsification or a search for causality.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Accelerator mass spectrometry</span> Accelerator that accelerates ions to high speeds before analysis

Accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) is a form of mass spectrometry that accelerates ions to extraordinarily high kinetic energies before mass analysis. The special strength of AMS among the different methods of mass spectrometry is its ability to separate a rare isotope from an abundant neighboring mass. The method suppresses molecular isobars completely and in many cases can also separate atomic isobars. This makes possible the detection of naturally occurring, long-lived radio-isotopes such as 10Be, 36Cl, 26Al and 14C.

Argon–argondating 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 (39K) into the radioactive 39Ar. 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 and assuming that 40Ar is found in a constant ratio to 36Ar in atmospheric gases.

Absolute dating is the process of determining an age on a specified chronology in archaeology and geology. Some scientists prefer the terms chronometric or calendar dating, as use of the word "absolute" implies an unwarranted certainty of accuracy. Absolute dating provides a numerical age or range, in contrast with relative dating, which places events in order without any measure of the age between events.

Chronostratigraphy is the branch of stratigraphy that studies the ages of rock strata in relation to time.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pilot Knob (Austin, Texas)</span> Eroded core of an extinct volcano located 8 miles (13 km) south of central Austin, Texas

Pilot Knob is the eroded core of an extinct volcano located in Austin, Texas, United States. It is near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and McKinney Falls State Park.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Thermochronology</span> Study of the thermal evolution of a region of a planet

Thermochronology is the study of the thermal evolution of a region of a planet. Thermochronologists use radiometric dating along with the closure temperatures that represent the temperature of the mineral being studied at the time given by the date recorded to understand the thermal history of a specific rock, mineral, or geologic unit. It is a subfield within geology, and is closely associated with geochronology.

Geochronometry is a branch of stratigraphy aimed at the quantitative measurement of geologic time. It is considered a branch of geochronology.

Surface exposure dating is a collection of geochronological techniques for estimating the length of time that a rock has been exposed at or near Earth's surface. Surface exposure dating is used to date glacial advances and retreats, erosion history, lava flows, meteorite impacts, rock slides, fault scarps, cave development, and other geological events. It is most useful for rocks which have been exposed for between 103 and 106 years.

Plate reconstruction is the process of reconstructing the positions of tectonic plates relative to each other or to other reference frames, such as the Earth's magnetic field or groups of hotspots, in the geological past. This helps determine the shape and make-up of ancient supercontinents and provides a basis for paleogeographic reconstructions.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Radiogenic nuclide</span>

A radiogenic nuclide is a nuclide that is produced by a process of radioactive decay. It may itself be radioactive or stable.

Chronological dating, or simply dating, is the process of attributing to an object or event a date in the past, allowing such object or event to be located in a previously established chronology. This usually requires what is commonly known as a "dating method". Several dating methods exist, depending on different criteria and techniques, and some very well known examples of disciplines using such techniques are, for example, history, archaeology, geology, paleontology, astronomy and even forensic science, since in the latter it is sometimes necessary to investigate the moment in the past during which the death of a cadaver occurred. These methods are typically identified as absolute, which involves a specified date or date range, or relative, which refers to dating which places artifacts or events on a timeline relative to other events and/or artifacts. Other markers can help place an artifact or event in a chronology, such as nearby writings and stratigraphic markers.

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 to a daughter isotope of calcium. This form of radioactive decay is accomplished through beta decay.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lutetium–hafnium dating</span> Gochronological dating method utilizing the radioactive decay system of lutetium–176

Lutetium–hafnium dating is a geochronological dating method utilizing the radioactive decay system of lutetium–176 to hafnium–176. With a commonly accepted half-life of 37.1 billion years, the long-living Lu–Hf decay pair survives through geological time scales, thus is useful in geological studies. Due to chemical properties of the two elements, namely their valences and ionic radii, Lu is usually found in trace amount in rare-earth element loving minerals, such as garnet and phosphates, while Hf is usually found in trace amount in zirconium-rich minerals, such as zircon, baddeleyite and zirkelite.


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Further reading