Radiometric Age Determination
Every rock and mineral exists in the world as a mixture of elements, and every element exists as a population of atoms. One element's population of atoms will not all have the same number of neutrons, and so two or more kinds of the same element will have different atomic masses or atomic numbers. These different kinds of the same chemical element are called nuclides of that element. A nuclide of a radioactive element is known as a radionuclide.
The nucleus of every radioactive element spontaneously disintegrates over time. This process results in radiation, and is called radioactive decay. Losing high-energy particles from their nuclei turns the atoms of a radioactive nuclide into the daughter product of that nuclide. A daughter product is either a different element altogether, or is a different nuclide of the same parent element. A daughter product may or may not be radioactive. If it is, it also decays to form its own daughter product. The last radioactive element in a series of these transformations will decay into a stable element, such as lead.
While there is no way to discern whether an individual atom will decay today or two billion years from today, the behavior of large numbers of the same kind of atom is so predictable that certain nuclides of elements are called radioactive clocks. The use of these radioactive clocks to calculate the age of a rock is referred to as radiometric age determination. First, an appropriate radioactive clock must be chosen. The sample must contain measurable quantities of the element to be tested for, and its radioactive clock must tell time for the appropriate interval of geologic time. Then, the amount of each nuclide present in the rock sample must be measured.
Each radioactive clock consists of a radioactive nuclide and its daughter product, which accumulate within the atomic framework of a mineral. These radioactive clocks decay at various rates, which govern their usefulness in particular cases. A three-billion year old rock needs to have its age determined by a radioactive clock that still has a measurable amount of the parent nuclide decaying into its daughter product after that long. The same radioactive clock would reveal nothing about a two million year old rock, for the rock would not yet have accumulated enough of the daughter product to measure.
The time it takes for half of the parent nuclide to decay into the daughter product is called one half-life. The remaining population of the parent nuclide is halved again, and the population of daughter product doubled, with the passing of every succeeding half-life. The amount of parent nuclide measured in the sample is plotted on a graph of that radioactive clock's known half-life. The absolute age of the rock, within its margin of error, can then be read directly from the time axis of the graph.
When a rock is tested to determine its age, different minerals within the rock are tested using the same radioactive clock—similar to questioning different witnesses at a crime scene to determine if they saw the same event happen in the same way. Ages may be determined on the same sample by using different radioactive clocks. When the age of a rock is measured in two different ways, and the results are the same, the results are said to be concordant.
Discordant ages means the radioactive clock showed different absolute ages for a rock sample, or different ages for different minerals within the rock. A discordant age result means that at some time after the rock was formed, something happened to it which reset one of the radioactive clocks back to zero.
For example, if a discordant result happens in the potassium-argon test, the rock may have been heated to a blocking temperature above which a mineral's atomic framework becomes active and wiggly enough to allow trapped gaseous argon-40 to escape.
Concordant ages mean that no complex sequence of events-deep burial, metamorphism, and mountain-building, for example has happened that can be detected by the two methods of age determination that were used.
A form of radiometric dating is used to determine the ages of organic matter. A short-lived radioisotope, carbon-14, is accumulated by all living things on Earth. Upon the organism's death, the carbon-14 is fixed and then begins to decay into carbon-12 at a known rate (its half-life is 5,730 years). By measuring how much of the carbon-14 is left in the remains, and plotting that amount on a graph showing how fast the carbon-14 decays, the approximate date of the organism's death can be known.
When uranium atoms decay, they emit fast, heavy alpha particles. Inside a zircon crystal, these subatomic particles tear long trails of destruction through the zircon's crystal framework. The age of a zircon crystal can be estimated by counting the number of these trails. The rate at which the trails form has been found by determining the age of rocks containing zircon crystals, and noting how torn-up the zircon crystals become over time. This age determination technique is called fission-track dating. This technique has detected the world's oldest rocks, between 3.8 billion and 3.9 billion years old, and yet older crystals, which suggest that Earth had some solid ground on it 4.2 billion years ago.
The age of Earth is deduced from the ages of other materials in the solar system, namely, meteorites. Meteorites are pieces formed from the cloud of dust and debris left behind by a supernova, the explosive death of a star. Through this cloud the infant Earth spun, attracting more and more pieces of matter. The meteorites that fall to Earth today have orbited the Sun since that time, unchanged and undisturbed by the processes that have destroyed Earth's first rocks. Radiometric ages for meteorites fall between 4.45 billion and 4.55 billion years.
The radionuclide iodine-129 is formed in nature only inside stars. A piece of solid iodine-129 will almost entirely decay into the gas xenon-129 within a hundred million years. If this decay happens in open space, the xenon-129 gas will float off into space, blown by the solar wind. Alternatively, if the iodine-129 was stuck in a rock within a hundred million years of being formed in a star, then some very old rocks should contain xenon-129 gas. Both meteorites and Earth's oldest rocks contain xenon-129. That means the star that provided the material for the solar system died its cataclysmic death less than 4.65 billion (4,650,000,000) years ago.
Hartman, William, and Ron Miller. The History of the Earth. New York: Workman Publishing, 1991.
Press, Frank, and Raymond Sevier. Understanding Earth. San Francisco: Freeman, 2000.
Tarbuck, Edward. J., Frederick K. Lutgens, and Dennis Tassa, eds. Earth: An Introduction to Physical Geology, 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2002.
Newman, William L. "Geologic Time." United States Geological Survey, July 28, 1997 [cited January 5, 2003]. <http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/geotime/contents.html>.