A new study by geologists at the Berkeley Geochronology Center and the University of California, Berkeley, improves upon a widely used dating technique, opening the possibility of a vastly more accurate time scale for major geologic events in Earth's history. To date, zircons - known to many as a semiprecious stone and December's birthstone - have often produced confusing and inaccurate results. Zircons have produced complicated data that are hard to interpret, though people have pulled dates out," said Mundil, a former UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow now at the BGC, a non-profit scientific research institute dedicated to perfecting dating techniques for establishing the history of Earth and life on Earth.
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- Uranium/lead dating provides most accurate date yet for Earth's largest extinction.
This boundary coincides with the largest extinction of life on Earth, when most marine invertebrates died out, including the well-known flat, segmented trilobites. Renne ascribes this to a lack of a precise measurement of the decay constant of potassium. The technique is based on the fact that the naturally occurring isotope potassium decays to argon with a 1. Comparison of the amount of argon produced in a nuclear reactor to the amount of argon gives a measure of the age of the rocks. This is strong evidence that these eruptions caused, at least in part, the global die-off, which some scientists have ascribed to a meteor impact.
That 'age,' however, "is based on interpretation of a very complicated data set," Mundil said. Mundil and his colleagues set out to resolve the issue, using a new zircon pretreatment invented by UC Santa Barbara isotope geologist James M. The problem with using microscopic zircons, which are prevalent in volcanic ash, is that the decay of uranium to lead is so energetic that the lead atoms smash through and destroy the zircon crystal structure, which apparently allows some lead to leak out of the crystal, throwing off the analysis.
Geologists have tried various zircon treatments, including abrading the outer surfaces of the crystals, which are typically a tenth of a millimeter across, or leaching the crystals with strong acid. Mattinson's idea was to first heat or anneal the zircons, sealing off the least damaged areas of the crystal, then using a strong reagent, hydrofluoric acid, to eat away the heavily damaged areas.
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When Mundil used this treatment, the zircon dates were much more consistent, requiring no selective interpretation of the data. The calculated uncertainty is about a quarter of a million years, which means the extinction took place over a very short time, the researchers concluded. The zircons were obtained from ash layers located in central and southeastern China.
I do think that radiometric dating is an accurate way to date the earth, although I am a geochronologist so I have my biases.
Accuracy of Fossils and Dating Methods
Most estimates of the age of the earth come from dating meteorites that have fallen to Earth because we think that they formed in our solar nebula very close to the time that the earth formed. The fact that the age we calculate is reproducible for these different systems is significant. We have also obtained a very similar age by measuring Pb isotopes in materials from earth.
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I should mention that the decay constants basically a value that indicates how fast a certain radioactive isotope will decay for some of these isotope systems were calculated by assuming that the age of the earth is 4. The decay constants for most of these systems have been confirmed in other ways, adding strength to our argument for the age of the earth.
Radiometric dating depends on the chemistry and ratios of different elements.
It works like this:. Take, for example, zircon, which is a mineral; its chemical formula is ZiSiO 4 , so there is one zirconium Zi for one silicon Si for four oxygen O. One of the elements that can stand in chemically for zircon is uranium. Uranium eventually decays into lead, and lead does not normally occur in zircon, except as the radioactive decay product of uranium. Therefore, by measuring the ratio of lead to uranium in a crystal of zircon, you can tell how much uranium there originally was in the crystal, which, combined with knowing the radioactive half-life of uranium, tells you how old the crystal is.
Obviously, if the substance you are measuring is contaminated, then all you know is the age since contamination, or worse, you don't know anything, because the contamination might be in the opposite direction - suppose, for example, you're looking at radio carbon carbon 14, which is produced in the atmosphere by cosmic rays, and which decays into nitrogen.
Since you are exposed to the atmosphere and contain carbon, if you get oils from your skin onto an archeological artifact, then attempting to date it using radio carbon will fail because you are measuring the age of the oils on your skin, not the age of the artifact.
This is why crystals are good for radiometric dating: The oldest crystals on Earth that were formed on Earth are zircon crystals, and are approximately 4. Asteroids in the solar system have been clocked at 4. We assume that the Earth is probably as old as the asteroids, because we believe the solar system to have formed from a collapsing nebula, and that the Earth, being geologically active, has simply destroyed any older zircon crystals that would be its true age, but we can't really be certain. The building blocks that the Earth is made of, the asteroids are 4. Based on astronomical models of how stars work, we also believe the Sun to be about 4.
Radiometric dating is a widely accepted technique that measures the rate of decay of naturally occurring elements that have been incorporated into rocks and fossils. Every element is defined by the particular number of protons, neutrons, and electrons that make up it's atoms.
Sometimes, the number of neutrons within the atom is off. These atoms, with an odd number of neutrons, are called isotopes. Because they do not have the ideal number of neutrons, the isotopes are unstable and over time they will convert into more stable atoms. Scientists can measure the ratio of the parent isotopes compared to the converted isotopes.
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The rate of isotope decay is very consistent, and is not effected by environmental changes like heat, temperature, and pressure. This makes radiometric dating quite reliable.
However, there are some factors that must be accounted for. For example, sometimes it is possible for a small amount of new "parent" isotopes to be incorporated into the object, skewing the ratio. This is understood and can be corrected for. Carbon is the most commonly used isotope for dating organic material plants, animals. Plants and animals continually take in carbon during their lifespan.
When they die, they no longer acquire carbon and so we can measure the decay of the isotope to determine when the plant or animal died. Because carbon decays relatively rapidly compared to other isotopes, it can only be used to date things that are less than 60, years old. Anything older would have so little carbon left that you couldn't accurately measure it. However, the rapid decay allows precise dating - accuracy within just a couple decades.