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  • Absolute dating methods give rocks an actual date or date range in numbers of years. This interactive explores four different methods used in absolute dating.

    Asolute dating methods – interactive image map.

    Scientists often need to know the actual dates of geological events so they can study landscape and environmental change. Absolute dating methods provide this type of information. Scientists have a variety of absolute dating methods to choose from, depending on the materials available in their rocks. This interactive explores four different methods used in absolute dating.

    To use this interactive, move your mouse or finger over any of the labelled boxes and select to obtain more information.

    See the activity Using absolute dating methods for additional support in using this interactive. It includes a quiz to test your knowledge of absolute dating.


    Radiocarbon dating

    When an organism dies, it no longer absorbs C-14. The C-14 it does contain in its tissues starts to decay at a constant rate.

    Name: Radiocarbon dating

    Material used: Organic remains such as wood and seeds

    Age range: Younger than 60,000 years ago

    How it works: Measures the amount of radioactive carbon-14 in the organic remains of living things

    Image: Pollen grains micrograph, GNS Science

    Optically stimulated luminescence (OSL)

    Before being buried in sediment, crystals exposed to sunlight lose previously stored energy from radiation. This sets the geological ‘clock’ to zero.

    Name: Optically stimulated luminescence (OSL)

    Material used: Wind-blown sediment with lots of quartz or feldspar mineral grains

    Age range: Younger than 100,000 years ago

    How it works: Measures radiation that the mineral receives after it has been buried away from light

    Image: Dr Uwe Rieser and Ms Ningsheng Wang, Luminescence Dating Laboratory, Victoria University of Wellington

    Fission track dating

    When uranium decays, subatomic particles split away. The particles leave tiny tracks in the crystal structure of minerals such as zircon and apatite.

    Name: Fission track dating

    Material used: Volcanic glass, zircon and other crystals

    Age range: 10,000 to 500 million years ago

    How it works: Measures radioactivity by counting tracks left in crystals by decaying uranium atoms

    Image: Fission tracks in the mineral apatite viewed through a microscope, Geotrack International Pty Limited, Melbourne

    Fossil correlation

    Fossils are the remains of once-living organisms preserved in rocks. Fossils include shells and bones.

    Name: Fossil correlation

    Material used: Fossils

    Age range: All ages

    How it works: Fossils found in an undated rock are matched to similar fossils found in rocks that have been dated in other places

    Image: Ammonite fossil, The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    Related content

    Read how scientists are using cosmogenic surface exposure dating, an absolute dating method in A clock in the rocks – cosmic rays and Earth science.

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato Published 23 February 2022 Size: 4.4 MB Referencing Hub media
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