Absolute and relative rock dating

Methods for relative dating were developed when geology first emerged as a natural science in the 18th century. Geologists still use the following principles today as a means to provide information about geologic history and the timing of geologic events.

Relative Dating of Rock Layers

The principle of Uniformitarianism states that the geologic processes observed in operation that modify the Earth's crust at present have worked in much the same way over geologic time. The principle of intrusive relationships concerns crosscutting intrusions. In geology, when an igneous intrusion cuts across a formation of sedimentary rock , it can be determined that the igneous intrusion is younger than the sedimentary rock.

There are a number of different types of intrusions, including stocks, laccoliths , batholiths , sills and dikes. The principle of cross-cutting relationships pertains to the formation of faults and the age of the sequences through which they cut.

Faults are younger than the rocks they cut; accordingly, if a fault is found that penetrates some formations but not those on top of it, then the formations that were cut are older than the fault, and the ones that are not cut must be younger than the fault. Finding the key bed in these situations may help determine whether the fault is a normal fault or a thrust fault. The principle of inclusions and components explains that, with sedimentary rocks, if inclusions or clasts are found in a formation, then the inclusions must be older than the formation that contains them.

For example, in sedimentary rocks, it is common for gravel from an older formation to be ripped up and included in a newer layer. A similar situation with igneous rocks occurs when xenoliths are found.


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These foreign bodies are picked up as magma or lava flows, and are incorporated, later to cool in the matrix. As a result, xenoliths are older than the rock which contains them. The principle of original horizontality states that the deposition of sediments occurs as essentially horizontal beds. Observation of modern marine and non-marine sediments in a wide variety of environments supports this generalization although cross-bedding is inclined, the overall orientation of cross-bedded units is horizontal.

The law of superposition states that a sedimentary rock layer in a tectonically undisturbed sequence is younger than the one beneath it and older than the one above it. This is because it is not possible for a younger layer to slip beneath a layer previously deposited. This principle allows sedimentary layers to be viewed as a form of vertical time line, a partial or complete record of the time elapsed from deposition of the lowest layer to deposition of the highest bed.

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The principle of faunal succession is based on the appearance of fossils in sedimentary rocks. As organisms exist at the same time period throughout the world, their presence or sometimes absence may be used to provide a relative age of the formations in which they are found. Based on principles laid out by William Smith almost a hundred years before the publication of Charles Darwin 's theory of evolution , the principles of succession were developed independently of evolutionary thought.

The principle becomes quite complex, however, given the uncertainties of fossilization, the localization of fossil types due to lateral changes in habitat facies change in sedimentary strata , and that not all fossils may be found globally at the same time. The principle of lateral continuity states that layers of sediment initially extend laterally in all directions; in other words, they are laterally continuous. As a result, rocks that are otherwise similar, but are now separated by a valley or other erosional feature, can be assumed to be originally continuous.

Layers of sediment do not extend indefinitely; rather, the limits can be recognized and are controlled by the amount and type of sediment available and the size and shape of the sedimentary basin. Sediment will continue to be transported to an area and it will eventually be deposited. However, the layer of that material will become thinner as the amount of material lessens away from the source.

Often, coarser-grained material can no longer be transported to an area because the transporting medium has insufficient energy to carry it to that location. In its place, the particles that settle from the transporting medium will be finer-grained, and there will be a lateral transition from coarser- to finer-grained material. The lateral variation in sediment within a stratum is known as sedimentary facies.

The amount of fluorine absorbed indicates how long the fossil has been buried in the sediments. This technique solely depends on the traces of radioactive isotopes found in fossils. The rate of decay of these elements helps determine their age, and in turn the age of the rocks. Physical structure of living beings depends on the protein content in their bodies. The changes in this content help determine the relative age of these fossils.

Relative Vs. Absolute Dating: The Ultimate Face-off

Each tree has growth rings in its trunk. This technique dates the time period during which these rings were formed. It determines the period during which certain object was last subjected to heat.


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It is based on the concept that heated objects absorb light, and emit electrons. The emissions are measured to compute the age.

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Differentiation Using a Venn Diagram. A Venn diagram depicts both dating methods as two individual sets. The area of intersection of both sets depicts the functions common to both. Take a look at the diagram to understand their common functions. When we observe the intersection in this diagram depicting these two dating techniques, we can conclude that they both have two things in common: Provide an idea of the sequence in which events have occurred. The relative dating is less advanced technique as compared to the absolute dating. In relative dating, mostly the common sense principles are applied, and it is told that which artifact or object is older than the other one.

Most commonly, the ancient factors of the rocks or objects are examined using the method called stratigraphy.

In other words, we can say that the age in the relative dating is ascertained by witnessing the layers of deposition or the rocks. As the word relative tells that defining the object with respect to the other object, it will be pertinent to mention here that actual numerical dates of the rocks or sites are not known in this type of dating.

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Other than rocks, fossils are the other most important elements in the relative dating as many organisms have there remain in the sedimentary rocks. This evaluation of the rocks and fossils in the relative dating is known as the biostratigraphy. The absolute dating is the technique to ascertain the exact numerical age of the artifacts, rocks or even sites, with using the methods like carbon dating and other. To evaluate the exact age, both the chemical and physical properties of the object are looked keenly.

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