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Like the other kind of dating, geologic dating isn’t always simple.Activity: Further discussion: Good overview as relates to the Grand Canyon: age dating: Use with this cross section of the Grand Canyon from the USGS’s teaching page: Canyon Have students reconstruct a simple geologic history — which are the oldest rocks shown? Are there any that you can’t tell using the Rule of Superposition?But the most accurate forms of absolute age dating are radiometric methods. Sedimentary rocks in particular are notoriously radioactive-free zones.This method works because some unstable (radioactive) isotopes of some elements decay at a known rate into daughter products. Half-life simply means the amount of time it takes for half of a remaining particular isotope to decay to a daughter product. Good discussion from the US Geological Survey: geochronolgists just measure the ratio of the remaining parent atom to the amount of daughter and voila, they know how long the molecule has been hanging out decaying. So to date those, geologists look for layers like volcanic ash that might be sandwiched between the sedimentary layers, and that tend to have radioactive elements.What’s more, if the whole rock is badly weathered, it will be hard to find an intact mineral grain containing radioactive isotopes.You might have noticed that many of the oldest age dates come from a mineral called zircon.Unlike people, you can’t really guess the age of a rock from looking at it.Yet, you’ve heard the news: Earth is 4.6 billion years old. That corn cob found in an ancient Native American fire pit is 1,000 years old. Geologic age dating—assigning an age to materials—is an entire discipline of its own.
Absolute age dating is like saying you are 15 years old and your grandfather is 77 years old.
And in some cases older objects may be moved out of their original context and get mixed with younger objects, in a stratigraphically younger layer.
This is the reason why most palaeontologists and archaeologists collaborate with geologists, in order to explain the processes which were at the origin of the sedimentation of the layers.
It’s based either on fossils which are recognized to represent a particular interval of time, or on radioactive decay of specific isotopes. Based on the Rule of Superposition, certain organisms clearly lived before others, during certain geologic times.
After all, a dinosaur wouldn’t be caught dead next to a trilobite.
In a way this field, called geochronology, is some of the purest detective work earth scientists do.