Geologic Time

What is Geologic Time?

Concealed within the rocks that make up the Earth’s crust lies evidence of over 4.5 billion years of time. The written record of human history, measured in decades and centuries, is but a blink of an eye when compared with this vast span of time. In fact, until the eighteenth century, it was commonly believed that the Earth was no older than a few thousand, or at most, million, years old. Scientific detective work and modern radiometric technology have only recently unlocked the clues that reveal the ancient age of our planet.

Evidence for an Ancient Earth

earthLong before scientists had developed the technology necessary to assign ages in terms of number of years before the present, they were able to develop a 'relative' geologic time scale. They had no way of knowing the ages of individual rock layers in years (radiometric dates), but they could often tell the correct sequence of their formation by using relative dating principles and fossils. Geologists studied the rates of processes they could observe first hand, such as filling of lakes and ponds by sediment, to estimate the time it took to deposit sedimentary rock layers. They quickly realized that millions of years were necessary to accumulate the rock layers we see today. As the amount of evidence grew, scientists were able to push the age of the Earth farther and farther back in time. Piece by piece, geologists constructed a geologic time scale, using increasingly more sophisticated methods for dating rock formations.

Early geologists used the relative positions of rock layers as clues to begin to unravel the complex history of our planet. However, it was not until this century that nuclear age technology was developed that uses measurements of radioactivity in certain types of rocks to give us ages in numbers of years. These ages, usually called radiometric ages, are used in conjunction with relative dating principles to determine at least an approximate age for most of the world’s major rock formations.

The Geologic Time Scale

The 4.55 billion-year geologic time scale is subdivided into different time periods of varying lengths. All of Earth history is divided into two great expanses of time. The Precambrian began when Earth first formed 4.55 billion years ago and ended about 570 million years ago. The Phanerozoic Eon began 570 million years ago and continues today.

This time scale, from the Decade of North American Geology, is widely used in North America. As we improve our ability to date rocks using radiometric dating methods, the time scale is amended. The time scale is constantly being refined, so don't be surprised to see continuing revisions as our technology and understanding of the Earth improves!

The time scale on the right above shows the subdivisions of geologic time in a form that will fit on a single page. This format is useful, but it tends to conceal the immense span of time, over 85 percent of Earth’s history, within the Precambrian.

How do we know the Age of the Earth?

The Earth is a constantly changing planet. Its crust is continually being created, modified, and destroyed. As a result, rocks that record its earliest history have not been found and probably no longer exist. Nevertheless, there is substantial evidence that the Earth and the other bodies of the Solar System are 4.5-4.6 billion years old, and that the Milky Way Galaxy and the Universe are older still. The principal evidence for the antiquity of Earth and its cosmic surroundings is:

The oldest rocks on Earth, found in western Greenland, have been dated by four independent radiometric dating methods at 3.7-3.8 billion years. Rocks 3.4-3.6 billion years in age have been found in southern Africa, western Australia, and the Great Lakes region of North America. These oldest rocks are metamorphic rocks but they originated as lava flows and sedimentary rocks. The debris from which the sedimentary rocks formed must have come from even older crustal rocks. The oldest dated minerals (4.0-4.2 billion years) are tiny zircon crystals found in sedimentary rocks in western Australia.

The oldest Moon rocks are from the lunar highlands and were formed when the early lunar crust was partially or entirely molten. These rocks, of which only a few were returned by the Apollo missions, have been dated by two methods at between 4.4-4.5 billion years in age.

The majority of the 70 well-dated meteorites have ages of 4.4-4.6 billion years. These meteorites, which are fragments of asteroids and represent some of the most primitive material in the solar system, have been dated by 5 independent radiometric dating methods.

The "best" age for the Earth is based on the time required for the lead isotopes in four very old lead ores (galena) to have evolved from the composition of lead at the time the Solar System formed, as recorded in the Canyon Diablo iron meteorite. This "model lead age" is 4.54 billion years.

The evidence for the antiquity of the Earth and Solar System is consistent with evidence for an even greater age for the Universe and Milky Way Galaxy. a) The age of the Universe can be estimated from the velocity and distance of galaxies as the universe expands. The estimates range from 7 to 20 billion years, depending on whether the expansion is constant or is slowing due to gravitational attraction. b) The age of the Galaxy is estimated to be 14-18 billion years from the rate of evolution of stars in globular clusters, which are thought to be the oldest stars in the Galaxy. The age of the elements in the Galaxy, based on the production ratios of osmium isotopes in supernovae and the change in that ratio over time due to radioactive decay, is 8.6-15.7 billion years. Theoretical considerations indicate that the Galaxy formed within a billion years of the beginning of the Universe. c) Combining the data from a) and b), the "best, i.e., most consistent, age of the universe is estimated to be 14-17 billion years.

Radiometric dating

Spontaneous breakdown or decay of atomic nuclei, termed radioactive decay, is the basis for all radiometric dating methods. Radioactivity was discovered in 1896 by French physicist Henri Becquerel. By 1907 study of the decay products of uranium (lead and intermediate radioactive elements that decay to lead) demonstrated to B. B. Boltwood that the lead/uranium ratio in uranium minerals increased with geologic age and might provide a geological dating tool.

As radioactive parent atoms decay to stable daughter atoms (as uranium decays to lead) each disintegration results in one more atom of the daughter than was initially present and one less atom of the parent. The probability of a parent atom decaying in a fixed period of time is always the same for all atoms of that type regardless of temperature, pressure, or chemical conditions. This probability of decay is the decay constant. The time required for one-half of any original number of parent atoms to decay is the half-life, which is related to the decay constant by a simple mathematical formula.

All rocks and minerals contain long-lived radioactive elements that were incorporated into Earth when the Solar System formed. These radioactive elements constitute independent clocks that allow geologists to determine the age of the rocks in which they occur. The radioactive parent elements used to date rocks and minerals are:

Radiometric dating using the naturally-occurring radioactive elements is simple in concept even though technically complex. If we know the number of radioactive parent atoms present when a rock formed and the number present now, we can calculate the age of the rock using the decay constant. The number of parent atoms originally present is simply the number present now plus the number of daughter atoms formed by the decay, both of which are quantities that can be measured. Samples for dating are selected carefully to avoid those that are altered, contaminated, or disturbed by later heating or chemical events.

In addition to the ages of Earth, Moon, and meteorites, radiometric dating has been used to determine ages of fossils, including early man, timing of glaciations, ages of mineral deposits, recurrence rates of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and the history of reversals of Earth’s magnetic field.

Sources: US Geological Survey Western Earth Surface Processes Team and the National Park Service.

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