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Geologists often need to know the age of material that they find. They use absolute dating methods, sometimes called numerical dating, to give rocks an actual date, or date range, in number of years. This is different to relative dating, which only puts geological events in time order. Most absolute dates for rocks are obtained with radiometric methods. These use radioactive minerals in rocks as geological clocks. The atoms of some chemical elements have different forms, called isotopes. These break down over time in a process scientists call radioactive decay. Each original isotope, called the parent, gradually decays to form a new isotope, called the daughter. Isotopes are important to geologists because each radioactive element decays at a constant rate, which is unique to that element. These rates of decay are known, so if you can measure the proportion of parent and daughter isotopes in rocks now, you can calculate when the rocks were formed.
Absolute dating also known as radiometric dating is based by the measurement of the content of specific radioactive isotopes of which the "half time" is known. Half time is the time needed for half of a given quantity of an isotope to decay in its byproducts. Comparing the quantity of the parent form and the byproduct will give a numerical value for the age of the material containing such isotopes. Example include carbonnitrogen, uranium-led, uranium-thorium. Relative dating instead allows for identifying the sequential order of geological events one relative to the other. This is based on the concept that, in a normal depositionary sequence, the deepest layers are also the oldest.
The good dates are confirmed using at least two different methods, ideally involving multiple independent labs for each method to cross-check results. Sometimes only one method is possible, reducing the confidence researchers have in the results. Kidding aside, dating a find is crucial for understanding its significance and relation to other fossils or artifacts. Methods fall into one of two categories: relative or absolute. Before more precise absolute dating tools were possible, researchers used a variety of comparative approaches called relative dating. These methods — some of which are still used today — provide only an approximate spot within a previously established sequence: Think of it as ordering rather than dating.
Relative dating is used to arrange geological events, and the rocks they leave behind, in a sequence. The method of reading the order is called stratigraphy layers of rock are called strata. Relative dating does not provide actual numerical dates for the rocks. Next time you find a cliff or road cutting with lots of rock strata, try working out the age order using some simple principles:. Fossils are important for working out the relative ages of sedimentary rocks.