Geological Time

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Traditional Aboriginal Knowledge

Geological Time

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Relative and Absolute Age
Principles of Stratigraphy
Breaks in the Stratigraphic Record
Angular Unconformity
Variation of unconformities
Stratigraphic Classification
The Geologic Column
Absolute Geologic Time
Potassium - Argon (K-Ar) Dating
Radiocarbon (14C) Dating
Absolute Dating and Geologic Time Scale
The Age of the Earth 

adapted to HTML from lecture notes of Prof. Stephen A. Nelson Tulane University  

Relative and Absolute Age

In order to understand how geologists deal with time we first need to understand the concepts of relative age and absolute age.

  • Relative age -  Relative means that we can determine  if something is younger than or older than something else.  Relative time does not tell how old something is, all we know is the sequence of events.  For example:  the sandstone in this area is older than the limestone.

  • Absolute age-  Absolute age means that we can more or less precisely assign a number (in years, minutes, seconds, or some other units of time) to the amount of time that has passed.  Thus we can say how old something is.  For example:  The sandstone is 300 million years old.

  • To better understand these concepts, let's look at an archeological example:  Imagine we are a group of archeologists studying two different trash pits recently discovered.  By carefully digging, we have found that each trash pit shows a sequence of layers.  Although the types of trash in each pit is quite variable, each layer has a distinctive kind of trash that distinguishes it from other layers in the pits.

    What can we say and learn from these excavations? Notice that at this point we do not know exactly how old any layer really is.
    Thus we do not know the absolute age of any given layer.
    In geology, we use similar principles to determine relative ages, correlations,  and absolute ages.

    Principles of Stratigraphy

    Stratigraphy =  the study of strata (layers) in the Earth's crust.
    Laws of Stratigraphy
    Original Horizontality - sedimentary strata are deposited in layers that are horizontal or nearly horizontal, parallel to or nearly parallel to the Earth's surface.  Thus rocks that we now see inclined or folded have been disturbed since their original deposition.
    Stratigraphic Superposition - Because of Earth's gravity, deposition of sediment will occur depositing older layers first followed by successively younger layers.  Thus, in a sequence of layers that have not been overturned by a later deformational event, the oldest layers will be on the bottom.  This is the same principle used to determine relative age in the trash pits discussed previously.  In fact, sedimentary rocks are,  in a sense, trash from the Earth's surface deposited in basins.

    Breaks in the Stratigraphic Record

    Because the Earth's crust is continually changing, i.e due to uplift, subsidence, and deformation, erosion is acting in some places and deposition of sediment is occurring in other places.  When sediment is not being deposited, or when erosion is removing previously deposited sediment, there will not be a continuous record of sedimentation preserved in the rocks.  We call such a break in the stratigraphic record a hiatus (a hiatus was identified in our trash pit example by the non-occurrence of the Ceramic Cups layer at the UNO site).  When we find evidence of a hiatus in the stratigraphic record we call it an unconformity.  An unconformity is a surface of erosion or non-deposition.  Three types of unconformities are recognized.

    Angular Unconformity


    Because of the Laws of Stratigraphy,  if we see a cross section like this  in a road cut or canyon wall where we can recognize an angular unconformity, then we know the geologic history or sequence of events that must have occurred in the area to produce the angular unconformity.  Angular unconformities are easy to recognize in the field because of the angular relationship of layers that were originally deposited horizontally



    Disconformities (called parallel unconformities in your lab book) are much harder to recognize in the field, because often there is no angular relationship between sets of layers.  Disconformities are usually recognized by correlating from one area to another and finding that some strata is missing in one of the areas. The unconformity recognized in the UNO trash pit is a disconformity.



    Nonconformities occur where rocks that formed deep in the Earth, such as intrusive igneous rocks or metamorphic rocks, are overlain by sedimentary rocks formed at the Earth's surface.  The nonconformity can only occur if all of the rocks overlying the metamorphic or intrusive igneous rocks have been removed by erosion.

    Variation of unconformities


    The nature of an unconformity can change with distance.  Notice how if we are only examining a small area in the figure above, we would determine a different type of unconformity at each location, yet the unconformity itself was caused by the same erosional event.  

    Two types of stratigraphic classification are used,

    one based on physical characteristics or material properties of the rocks - Rock Stratigraphic Units, and the other based on the time over which the material was formed - Time Stratigraphic Units.

    Rock Stratigraphic Units

    Distinctive bodies of rocks that differ from the rocks above and below in the general characteristics.  The basic unit is a formation.

    Time Stratigraphic Units

    A bodies of rocks that were deposited during the same geologic time interval.  The basic unit is a period.

    Correlation of Rock Units

    In order for rock units to be correlated over wide areas, they must be determined to be equivalent. Determination of equivalence is based on:

  • Relative Age - if two rock units are equivalent they must have the same age relative to rocks that occur below and above.  The laws of stratigraphy enable this determination.
  • Physical Criteria - two rock units share similar physical characteristics
  • Similarity in rock type, but only if relative age is equivalent. Key beds, like widespread volcanic ash layers that are the same over wide areas are often used to establish equivalence.
  • fossils present - Fossils are key indicators of relative age (life has evolved through time) and environments of deposition.

    The Geologic Column

      Over the past 150 years detailed studies of rocks throughout the world based on stratigraphic, paleontologic, and correlation studies have allowed geologists to correlate rock units throughout the world and break them into time stratigraphic units.  The result is the geologic column, which breaks relative geologic time into units of known relative age.  Note that the geologic column was established and fairly well known before geologists had a means of determining absolute ages.  Thus in the geologic column shown, the absolute ages in the far right-hand column were not known until recently.


    Absolute Geologic Time

    Although geologists can easily establish relative ages of rocks based on the principles of stratigraphy, knowing how much time a geologic Eon, Era, Period, or Epoch represents is a more difficult problem without having knowledge of absolute ages of rocks.  In the early years of geology, many attempts were made to establish some measure of absolute geologic time.
    Age of Earth estimated on the basis of how long it would take the oceans to obtain their present salt content.  Assumes that we know the rate at which the salts (Na, Cl, Ca, and CO3 ions) are input into the oceans by rivers, and assumes that we know the rate at which these salts are removed by chemical precipitation.  Calculations in 1889 gave estimate for the age of the Earth of 90 million years.

    Age of Earth estimated from time required to cool from an initially molten state.  Assumptions include, the initial temperature of the Earth when it formed, the present temperature throughout the interior of the Earth, and that there are no internal sources of heat.  Calculations gave estimate of 100 million years for the age of the Earth.
    In 1896 radioactivity was discovered, and it was soon learned that radioactive decay occurs at a constant rate throughout time.  With this discovery, Radiometric dating techniques became possible, and gave us a means of measuring absolute geologic time.
    Radiometric Dating

    Radiometric dating relies on the fact that there are different types of isotopes.
    Radioactive Isotopes -  isotopes (parent isotopes) that spontaneously decay at a constant rate to another isotope.
    Radiogenic Isotopes - isotopes that are formed by radioactive decay (daughter isotopes).

    The rate at which radioactive isotopes decay is often stated as the half-life of the isotope (t1/2).  The half-life is the amount of time it takes for one half of the initial amount of the parent, radioactive isotope,  to decay to the daughter isotope.  Thus, if we start out with 1 gram of the parent isotope, after the passage of 1 half-life there will be 0.5 gram of the parent isotope left.After the passage of two half-lives only 0.25 gram will remain, and after 3 half lives only 0.125 will remain etc.
    Some examples of isotope systems used to date geologic materials.

    Parent Daughter t1/2 Useful Range Type of Material
    238U 206Pb 4.5 b.y >10 million years  Igneous Rocks and Minerals
    235U 207Pb 710 m.y
    232Th 208Pb 14 b.y
    40K 40Ar & 40Ca 1.3 b.y >10,000 years
    87Rb 87Sr 47 b.y >10 million years
    14C 14N 5,730 y 100 - 70,000 years Organic Material

    Potassium - Argon (K-Ar) Dating In nature there are three isotopes of potassium:

    Radiocarbon (14C) Dating

    Radiocarbon dating is different than the other methods of dating because it cannot be used to directly date rocks, but can only be used to date organic material produced by once living organisms.

    Using the methods of absolute dating, and cross-cutting relationships of igneous rocks, geologists have been able to establish the absolute times for the geologic column.  For example, imagine some cross section such as that shown here.From the cross-cutting relationships and stratigraphy we can determine that: By examining relationships like these all over the world, the Geologic Time scale has been very precisely correlated with the Geologic Column.  but, because the geologic column was established before radiometric dating techniques were available, note that the lengths of the different Periods and Epochs are variable

    The Age of the Earth

    Theoretically we should be able to determine the age of the Earth by finding and dating the oldest rock that occurs.  So far, the oldest rock found and dated has an age of 3.96 billion years.  But, is this the age of the Earth?  Probably not, because  rocks exposed at the Earth's surface are continually being eroded, and thus, it is unlikely that the oldest rock will ever be found.  But, we do have clues about the age of the Earth from other sources: