Uranium lead dating accuracy

To date, zircons - known to many as a semiprecious stone and December's birthstone - have often produced confusing and inaccurate results. Zircons have produced complicated data that are hard to interpret, though people have pulled dates out," said Mundil, a former UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow now at the BGC, a non-profit scientific research institute dedicated to perfecting dating techniques for establishing the history of Earth and life on Earth.

This boundary coincides with the largest extinction of life on Earth, when most marine invertebrates died out, including the well-known flat, segmented trilobites.

Uranium/lead dating provides most accurate date yet for Earth's largest extinction

Renne ascribes this to a lack of a precise measurement of the decay constant of potassium. The technique is based on the fact that the naturally occurring isotope potassium decays to argon with a 1. Comparison of the amount of argon produced in a nuclear reactor to the amount of argon gives a measure of the age of the rocks. This is strong evidence that these eruptions caused, at least in part, the global die-off, which some scientists have ascribed to a meteor impact.

That 'age,' however, "is based on interpretation of a very complicated data set," Mundil said. Mundil and his colleagues set out to resolve the issue, using a new zircon pretreatment invented by UC Santa Barbara isotope geologist James M. The problem with using microscopic zircons, which are prevalent in volcanic ash, is that the decay of uranium to lead is so energetic that the lead atoms smash through and destroy the zircon crystal structure, which apparently allows some lead to leak out of the crystal, throwing off the analysis.

Uranium–lead dating

Geologists have tried various zircon treatments, including abrading the outer surfaces of the crystals, which are typically a tenth of a millimeter across, or leaching the crystals with strong acid. Mattinson's idea was to first heat or anneal the zircons, sealing off the least damaged areas of the crystal, then using a strong reagent, hydrofluoric acid, to eat away the heavily damaged areas. When Mundil used this treatment, the zircon dates were much more consistent, requiring no selective interpretation of the data.

The calculated uncertainty is about a quarter of a million years, which means the extinction took place over a very short time, the researchers concluded.


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The zircons were obtained from ash layers located in central and southeastern China. Robot created to monitor key wine vineyard parameters. Therefore, one can assume that the entire lead content of the zircon is radiogenic , i. Thus the current ratio of lead to uranium in the mineral can be used to determine its age.

The method relies on two separate decay chains , the uranium series from U to Pb, with a half-life of 4. The above uranium to lead decay routes occur via a series of alpha and beta decays, in which U with daughter nuclides undergo total eight alpha and six beta decays whereas U with daughters only experience seven alpha and four beta decays. The existence of two 'parallel' uranium—lead decay routes U to Pb and U to Pb leads to multiple dating techniques within the overall U—Pb system.

The term U—Pb dating normally implies the coupled use of both decay schemes in the 'concordia diagram' see below. However, use of a single decay scheme usually U to Pb leads to the U—Pb isochron dating method, analogous to the rubidium—strontium dating method. Finally, ages can also be determined from the U—Pb system by analysis of Pb isotope ratios alone. This is termed the lead—lead dating method.

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Clair Cameron Patterson , an American geochemist who pioneered studies of uranium—lead radiometric dating methods, is famous for having used it to obtain one of the earliest estimates of the age of the Earth. Although zircon ZrSiO 4 is most commonly used, other minerals such as monazite see: Where crystals such as zircon with uranium and thorium inclusions do not occur, a better, more inclusive, model of the data must be applied.

These types of minerals often produce lower precision ages than igneous and metamorphic minerals traditionally used for age dating, but are more common in the geologic record. During the alpha decay steps, the zircon crystal experiences radiation damage, associated with each alpha decay. This damage is most concentrated around the parent isotope U and Th , expelling the daughter isotope Pb from its original position in the zircon lattice.


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  • In areas with a high concentration of the parent isotope, damage to the crystal lattice is quite extensive, and will often interconnect to form a network of radiation damaged areas. These fission tracks inevitably act as conduits deep within the crystal, thereby providing a method of transport to facilitate the leaching of lead isotopes from the zircon crystal.

    Under conditions where no lead loss or gain from the outside environment has occurred, the age of the zircon can be calculated by assuming exponential decay of Uranium. These are said to yield concordant ages.

    Uranium-Lead dating

    Loss leakage of lead from the sample will result in a discrepancy in the ages determined by each decay scheme. This effect is referred to as discordance and is demonstrated in Figure 1. If a series of zircon samples has lost different amounts of lead, the samples generate a discordant line. The upper intercept of the concordia and the discordia line will reflect the original age of formation, while the lower intercept will reflect the age of the event that led to open system behavior and therefore the lead loss; although there has been some disagreement regarding the meaning of the lower intercept ages.

    Zircon is very chemically inert and resistant to mechanical weathering—a mixed blessing for geochronologists, as zones or even whole crystals can survive melting of their parent rock with their original uranium-lead age intact. Zircon crystals with prolonged and complex histories can thus contain zones of dramatically different ages usually, with the oldest and youngest zones forming the core and rim, respectively, of the crystal , and thus are said to demonstrate inherited characteristics.

    Unraveling such complications which, depending on their maximum lead-retention temperature, can also exist within other minerals generally requires in situ micro-beam analysis via, say, ion microprobe SIMS or laser ICP-MS. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.