How is Earth’s Age Calculated?

JavaScript is disabled in your browser. Enable it if you want to make full use of the features on our website. How old is Earth? In secular circles, the age is believed to be around 4. This number is used so often that most people accept it as a scientific fact. Radiometric dating is an important key to the deep-time age estimate for Earth. Various methods use radioactive elements and their decay products to date rock samples from around the world in the hundreds of millions of years. But is radioactive dating valid?

“Cradle of Humankind” fossils can now be dated

The Earth is 4,54 billion years old. This age has been determined with the radioactive dating technique. The precise decay rate of radioactive elements is used as a clock: the number of daughter products in one rock indicates its age. The oldest meteorites ever dated in the Solar System are 4,56 billion years old, the oldest minerals on Earth are 4,4 billion years old, and the oldest rocks on Earth are 4 billion years old.

These ages are very consistent because the meteorites had to form before the accretion of our planet, and the Earth had to cool down before the first minerals could crystallise.

Scientists find the age of the Earth by using radiometric dating of rocks Earth’s crust, figure out the quantities of uranium and lead, plug those.

Both isotopes are the starting points for complex decay series that eventually produce stable isotopes of lead. Uranium-lead dating was applied initially to uranium minerals, e. The amount of radiogenic lead from all these methods must be distinguished from naturally occurring lead, and this is calculated by using the ratio with Pb, which is a stable isotope of the element then, after correcting for original lead, if the mineral has remained in a closed system, the U: Pb and U: Pb ages should agree.

If this is the case, they are concordant and the age determined is most probably the actual age of the specimen. If the ages determined using these two methods do not agree, then they do not fall on this curve and are therefore discordant. This commonly occurs if the system has been heated or otherwise disturbed, causing a loss of some of the lead daughter atoms. Because Pb and Pb are chemically identical, they are usually lost in the same proportions.

The plot of the ratios will then produce a straight line below the Concordia curve. Wetherill has shown that the two points on the Concordia curve intersected by this straight line will represent the time of initial crystallization and the time of the subsequent lead loss.


This is a learning project for exploration of scientific methods that have been used to measure the age of the Earth. Until the Scientific revolution there was no way for people to systematically explore the age of the Earth. People in some cultures imagined that the Earth was very old maybe even infinitely old and others imagined that it was young, possibly only a few thousand years old.

Radiometric dating makes use of the existence of radioisotopes. An example Uranium decays to lead There are.

Thank you for visiting nature. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer. In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript. A Nature Research Journal. IN his recent discussion of this subject, Prof. Harold Jeffreys 1 suggests two statistical methods for estimating t 0 , the age of the earth’s crust, from the data on tha isotopic constitution of ore-leads of different ages im , provided by Nier and his co-workers 2.

The first of these methods is wrong in principle and yields results which are internally in-consistent and widely at variance both with my own solutions 3,4 and with known geochemical data. The second is sound in principle and leads to results consistent with mine ; but it is wrongly stated by Jeffreys, and the solitary example given is arithmetically incorrect.

Jeffreys concludes “that no reliance can be placed on estimates of t 0 that depend on the abundance of Pb “. Since my own estimate depends on the abundances of Pb and Pb and I can find no reason for modifying it, it becomes necessary to point out how the alleged discrepancies have arisen. Jeffreys, H. Nier, A.

Clair Patterson’s Early Life and Research

Earth scientists have devised many complementary and consistent techniques to estimate the ages of geologic events. Annually deposited layers of sediments or ice document hundreds of thousands of years of continuous Earth history. Gradual rates of mountain building, erosion of mountains, and the motions of tectonic plates imply hundreds of millions of years of change.

What is the role of geochronology in Earth and planetary sciences? Refinements in uranium-lead dating of zircon can date crystallization.

It is an accurate way to date specific geologic events. This is an enormous branch of geochemistry called Geochronology. There are many radiometric clocks and when applied to appropriate materials, the dating can be very accurate. As one example, the first minerals to crystallize condense from the hot cloud of gasses that surrounded the Sun as it first became a star have been dated to plus or minus 2 million years!! That is pretty accurate!!! Other events on earth can be dated equally well given the right minerals.

For example, a problem I have worked on involving the eruption of a volcano at what is now Naples, Italy, occurred years ago with a plus or minus of years. Yes, radiometric dating is a very accurate way to date the Earth. We know it is accurate because radiometric dating is based on the radioactive decay of unstable isotopes. For example, the element Uranium exists as one of several isotopes, some of which are unstable.

When an unstable Uranium U isotope decays, it turns into an isotope of the element Lead Pb. We call the original, unstable isotope Uranium the “parent”, and the product of decay Lead the “daughter”.

Radioactive dating

Dating , in geology , determining a chronology or calendar of events in the history of Earth , using to a large degree the evidence of organic evolution in the sedimentary rocks accumulated through geologic time in marine and continental environments. To date past events, processes, formations, and fossil organisms, geologists employ a variety of techniques. These include some that establish a relative chronology in which occurrences can be placed in the correct sequence relative to one another or to some known succession of events.

The Earth’s magnetic field experiences reversals such that north becomes radiometric dating of these zircons using the uranium-lead method.

When asked for your age, it’s likely you won’t slip with the exception of a recent birthday mistake. But for the sprawling sphere we call home, age is a much trickier matter. Before so-called radiometric dating, Earth’s age was anybody’s guess. Our planet was pegged at a youthful few thousand years old by Bible readers by counting all the “begats” since Adam as late as the end of the 19th century, with physicist Lord Kelvin providing another nascent estimate of million years.

Kelvin defended this calculation throughout his life, even disputing Darwin’s explanations of evolution as impossible in that time period. In , Marie Curie discovered the phenomenon of radioactivity, in which unstable atoms lose energy, or decay, by emitting radiation in the form of particles or electromagnetic waves. By physicist Ernest Rutherford showed how this decay process could act as a clock for dating old rocks. Meanwhile, Arthur Holmes was finishing up a geology degree at the Imperial College of Science in London where he developed the technique of dating rocks using the uranium-lead method.

How Science Figured Out the Age of Earth

In , shortly after the discovery of radioactivity , the American chemist Bertram Boltwood suggested that lead is one of the disintegration products of uranium, in which case the older a uranium-bearing mineral the greater should be its proportional part of lead. Analyzing specimens whose relative geologic ages were known, Boltwood found that the ratio of lead to uranium did indeed increase with age. After estimating the rate of this radioactive change, he calculated that the absolute ages of his specimens ranged from million to 2.

Though his figures were too high by about 20 percent, their order of magnitude was enough to dispose of the short scale of geologic time proposed by Lord Kelvin. Versions of the modern mass spectrometer were invented in the early s and s, and during World War II the device was improved substantially to help in the development of the atomic bomb.

The geological time scale and an age for the Earth of b.y. rely heavily on the uranium/thorium/lead radiometric dating methods.1,2,3 Because it is not.

The discovery of the radioactive properties of uranium in by Henri Becquerel subsequently revolutionized the way scientists measured the age of artifacts and supported the theory that the earth was considerably older than what some scientists believed. There are several methods of determining the actual or relative age of the earth’s crust: examination of fossil remains of plants and animals, relating the magnetic field of ancient days to the current magnetic field of the earth, and examination of artifacts from past civilizations.

However, one of the most widely used and accepted method is radioactive dating. All radioactive dating is based on the fact that a radioactive substance, through its characteristic disintegration, eventually transmutes into a stable nuclide. When the rate of decay of a radioactive substance is known, the age of a specimen can be determined from the relative proportions of the remaining radioactive material and the product of its decay. In , the American chemist Bertram Boltwood demonstrated that he could determine the age of a rock containing uranium and thereby proved to the scientific community that radioactive dating was a reliable method.

Age of Earth

A light-colored flowstone deposit lies atop lithified red sediments in a South African cave where hominin fossils were found. Researchers dated such flowstones to constrain the ages of fossils found in adjacent sedimentary layers. Credit: Robyn Pickering. Robyn Pickering was taught as an undergraduate about a collection of limestone caves in northern South Africa known collectively as the Cradle of Humankind for the trove of early hominin fossils discovered there.

She learned that, unlike hominin fossils unearthed in East Africa, whose ages have been constrained by dating the surrounding layers of volcanic ash, the fossils in the Cradle — including well-preserved specimens of Australopithecus africanus and the recently discovered Homo naledi , among others — were impossible to date independently. Now, Pickering , an isotope geochemist at the University of Cape Town, and her colleagues have figured out a way to date the South African fossils after all.

Image showing the radioactive age dating of a rock. Please have someone As the rock ages, more and more of the uranium changes into lead. The age of the.

Radioactive dating is a method of dating rocks and minerals using radioactive isotopes. This method is useful for igneous and metamorphic rocks, which cannot be dated by the stratigraphic correlation method used for sedimentary rocks. Over naturally-occurring isotopes are known. Some do not change with time and form stable isotopes i. The unstable or more commonly known radioactive isotopes break down by radioactive decay into other isotopes.

Radioactive decay is a natural process and comes from the atomic nucleus becoming unstable and releasing bits and pieces. These are released as radioactive particles there are many types. This decay process leads to a more balanced nucleus and when the number of protons and neutrons balance, the atom becomes stable. This radioactivity can be used for dating, since a radioactive ‘parent’ element decays into a stable ‘daughter’ element at a constant rate.

Clocks in the Rocks

How Old is That Rock? How can you tell the age of a rock or to which geologic time period it belongs? One way is to look at any fossils the rock may contain. If any of the fossils are unique to one of the geologic time periods, then the rock was formed during that particular time period.

Radioactive dating using uranium decay to lead gives an age near billion years, with an uncertainty of about billion years either way. The oldest rocks.

A relative age simply states whether one rock formation is older or younger than another formation. The Geologic Time Scale was originally laid out using relative dating principles. The geological time scale is based on the the geological rock record, which includes erosion, mountain building and other geological events. Over hundreds to thousands of millions of years, continents, oceans and mountain ranges have moved vast distances both vertically and horizontally.

For example, areas that were once deep oceans hundreds of millions of years ago are now mountainous desert regions. How is geological time measured? The earliest geological time scales simply used the order of rocks laid down in a sedimentary rock sequence stratum with the oldest at the bottom. However, a more powerful tool was the fossilised remains of ancient animals and plants within the rock strata.

After Charles Darwin’s publication Origin of Species Darwin himself was also a geologist in , geologists realised that particular fossils were restricted to particular layers of rock. This built up the first generalised geological time scale. Once formations and stratigraphic sequences were mapped around the world, sequences could be matched from the faunal successions.

This is Geochronology – Pieter Vermeesch