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Dating Techniques

Fission Track Dating

Some volcanic minerals and glasses, such as obsidian, contain uranium-238 (238U). Over time, these substances become "scratched." The marks, called tracks, are the damage caused by the fission (splitting) of the uranium atoms. When an atom of 238U splits, two "daughter" atoms rocket away from each other, leaving in their wake tracks in the material in which they are embedded. The rate at which this process occurs is proportional to the decay rate of 238U. The decay rate is measured in terms of the half-life of the element, or the time it takes for half of the element to split into its daughter atoms. The half-life of 238U is 4.47x109 years.

When the mineral or glass is heated, the tracks are erased in much the same way cut marks fade away from hard candy that is heated. This process sets the fission track clock to zero, and the number of tracks that then form are a measure of the amount of time that has passed since the heating event. Scientists are able to count the tracks in the sample with the aid of a powerful microscope. The sample must contain enough 238U to create enough tracks to be counted, but not contain too much of the isotope, or there will be a jumble of tracks that cannot be distinguished for counting. One of the advantages of fission track dating is that it has an enormous dating range. Objects heated only a few decades ago may be dated if they contain relatively high levels of 238U; conversely, some meteorites have been dated to over a billion years old with this method.

See also Pollen analysis; Strata.



Geyh, Mebus A., and Helmut Schleicher. Absolute Age Determination. Physical and Chemical Dating Methods and Their Application. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1990.

Göksu, H.Y., M. Oberhofer, and D. Regulla, eds. Scientific Dating Methods. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991.

Lewis, C.L.E. The Dating Game Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Wagner, Günther, and Peter Van Den Haute. Fission-Track Dating. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1992.


Hofreiter, M., et al. "Ancient DNA." Nature Reviews Genetics 2 (2001): 353-359.

Kathryn M. C. Evans

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cyanohydrins to Departments of philosophy:Dating Techniques - Stratigraphy, Seriation, Faunal Dating, Pollen Dating (palynology), Amino Acid Racimization, Cation-ratio Dating - Relative dating, Absolute dating, Radioactive decay dating