Radiometric dating in geology

The method of dating rocks and minerals is known as geochronology. Although in principle this term could be applied to estimation of relative ages according to traditional geological observation, it is nowadays usually restricted to the quantitative measurement of geological time using the constant-rate natural process of radioactive decay. 14C dating is a technique based on measuring the residual radioactivity of this isotope which decays exponentially from the time of death of organisms which extract it from the atmosphere (e.g. when a living tree becomes simply 'wood'). The halflife of this decay is only 5600 years. Even using pre-concentration techniques and highly sensitive detectors, the practical range of the dating method does not extend back beyond about 100000 years-a period utterly insignificant in terms of the geological evolution of the Earth, which extends over the past 4500 million years. For geological dating one requires naturally occurring elements with much longer halflives. Most of the handful of appropriate decay schemes are listed. Most of the parent elements are rare metal constituents in the bulk chemical composition of the Earth. For such 'trace' elements it is generally convenient to express their concentration in natural materials in parts per million by weight (ppm) and even in the one case of a fairly common element (potassium) only a very small proportion occurs as the radioactive 40K. Also, some of the halflives are very long, even by geological reckoning, so that the actual level of natural radioactivity is rarely more than a few disintegrations per minute per gram.


Publication status:
Authors: Pankhurst, R.J.

1 January, 1980
Physics Education / 15
Link to published article: