Radiometric dating inaccuracies

Such uncertainties are usually glossed over, especially when radioactive dates are communicated to the public and, more importantly, to students. Generally, we are told that scientists have ways to analyze the object they are dating so as to eliminate the uncertainties due to unknown processes that occurred in the past. One way this is done in many radioactive dating techniques is to use an isochron. However, a recent paper by Dr. Hayes has pointed out a problem with isochrons that has, until now, not been considered. The elements rubidium and strontium are found in many rocks.

One form of rubidium Rb is radioactive. As illustrated above, a neutron in a Rb atom can eject an electron often called a beta particle , which has a negative charge. Since a neutron has no charge, it must become positively charged after emitting an electron. In fact, it becomes a proton. This changes the chemical identity of the atom. It is no longer Rb; it is strontium Sr Sr is not radioactive, so the change is permanent.

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We know how long it takes Rb to turn into Sr, so in principle, if we analyze the amount of Rb and Sr in a rock, we should be able to tell how long the decay has been occurring. Of course, there are all sorts of uncertainties involved. How much Sr was in the rock when it first formed?

Was Rb or Sr added to the rock by some unknown process? Was one of them removed from the rock by some unknown process? The isochron is supposed to take care of such issues. Essentially, rather than looking at the amounts of Rb and Sr, we look at their ratios compared to Sr The ratio of Sr to Sr is graphed versus the ratio of Rb to Sr for several different parts of the rock. How does that help? Thus, it provides an independent analysis of the rock that does not depend on the radioactive decay that is being studied.

The amount of Sr that was already in the rock when it formed, for example, should be proportional to the amount of Sr that is currently there. Since the data are divided by the amount of Sr, the initial amount of Sr is cancelled out in the analysis. He says that there is one process that has been overlooked in all these isochron analyses: Atoms and molecules naturally move around, and they do so in such as way as to even out their concentrations. A helium balloon, for example, will deflate over time, because the helium atoms diffuse through the balloon and into the surrounding air.

Well, diffusion depends on the mass of the thing that is diffusing. Sr diffuses more quickly than Sr, and that has never been taken into account when isochrons are analyzed. Hayes has brought it up, we can take it into account, right? If the effects of diffusion can be taken into account, it will require an elaborate model that will most certainly require elaborate assumptions.

Hayes suggests a couple of other approaches that might work, but its not clear how well. So what does this mean? If you believe the earth is very old, then most likely, all of the radioactive dates based on isochrons are probably overestimates. How bad are the overestimates?

Most likely, the effect will be dependent on the age. I would think that the older the sample, the larger the overestimate. As a young-earth creationist, I look at this issue in a different way. Certainly not enough to justify the incredibly unscientific extrapolation necessary in an old-earth framework. This newly-pointed-out flaw in the isochron method is a stark reminder of that. A good isochron was supposed to be rock-solid evidence pun intended that the radioactive date is reliable.

We now know that it is not. Wile, I was waiting for you to comment on this, because I wanted to ask if you think this problem can be extrapolated to other isotopes such as lead and argon. If so, it seems to be a pretty big deal. As I said, carbon dating is an exception, but most other modern radiometric dates are produced using an isochron. Are the samples we see in the RATE study, for example, just anomalies, existing on the ends of the bell curve, or are these indicative of an endemic misunderstanding of the process?

Are there any theories that could account for the accelerated decay rate or how the daughters could have gotten in to the samples? Thus, any significant amount of daughter product will produce a very old date. In my view, if two different dating schemes give significantly different answers, then either one of them is wrong or both of them are wrong. Scientists exclude what we think are anomalous data all the time. Unfortunately, that discarded data might be what gives us real insight. Young-earth creationists have a hard time explaining the general results of long-lived isotopes and their daughter products being present.

On the other side, old-earthers have a hard time explaining all the discordance. If radioactive dating is so reliable, why do different methods yield different results?


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Why are some of those differences really, really large? As is often the case, there are problems on both sides. The side you end up coming down on often depends on which problems you are most comfortable trying to deal with. Physicists already theorize that dark matter would affect nuclear decay rates; what if the leftover energy went to the dark matter?

The heat problem occurs everywhere there are radioactive isotopes, so throughout the crust and mantle of the earth, for example. The dark matter would have to be there in order to take the heat.

More Bad News for Radiometric Dating

You can think of dark matter here as a lot like the luminiferous ether: Since its interaction with normal matter is incredibly weak, it can very easily pass through the earth. Not to mention that different models of dark matter would lead to different interactions. Are we able to calculate the mass of the earth from our knowledge of its contents, and not just the gravitational force we detect? I think if there were much dark matter in the earth, it would be noticeable. We also know the overall composition of the crust and mantle from samples. Thus, the only real unknown is the composition of the core.

Using the mass and all those other measurements, we deduce that the core is mostly iron with some nickel. I fear it is more a matter of philosophy rather than hard science: The problem with that, is that, in the first case, there appear to be no transitional fossils when there should be millions , and to make the assumption previously herein stated, evolutionary conclusions are more akin to a combination of wishful thinking combined with a sympathetic magic mindset, than to observable examples.

Evolution is taught as established fact, and scientific enquiry is severely trammelled by those who prefer a status quo. Every fossil between organisms alive now and abiogenesis is a transitional fossil, Tony. There are also transitional fossils and organisms in the misguided definition of the word you are using. I admire your faith, Cromwell. Yet you state it as fact. Then, you claim that all fossils are a transition between that unrealistic event and the life we see now.

Thanks for writing an informative article. Error bars have their place, but you are correct in pointing out that they are often misunderstood not only by the general public, but by scientists who are not savvy in radiometric dating. I would have worded this sentence differently: I am not convinced that differential diffusion of isotopes will be all that significant.

After all, fractionation of light elements, such as oxygen, provides us with all sorts of insights into geologic processes because the mass difference between O and O is rather significant, whereas the mass difference between Sr and Sr is not all that great, in terms of ratios. The differences are even less significant for more massive isotopes such as in samarium-neodymium dating Nd and Nd Kennedy in Geoscience Reports, Spring , No. Contamination and fractionation issues are frankly acknowledged by the geologic community. If this occurs, initial volcanic eruptions would have a preponderance of daughter products relative to the parent isotopes.

Such a distribution would give the appearance of age. As the magma chamber is depleted in daughter products, subsequent lava flows and ash beds would have younger dates. Such a scenario does not answer all of the questions or solve all of the problems that radiometric dating poses for those who believe the Genesis account of Creation and the Flood. It does suggest at least one aspect of the problem that could be researched more thoroughly. So we have two kinds of processes taking place. There are those processes taking place when lava solidifies and various minerals crystallize out at different times.

There are also processes taking place within a magma chamber that can cause differences in the composition of the magma from the top to the bottom of the chamber, since one might expect the temperature at the top to be cooler. Both kinds of processes can influence radiometric dates. In addition, the magma chamber would be expected to be cooler all around its borders, both at the top and the bottom as well as in the horizontal extremities, and these effects must also be taken into account. For example, heavier substances will tend to sink to the bottom of a magma chamber. Also, substances with a higher melting point will tend to crystallize out at the top of a magma chamber and fall, since it will be cooler at the top.

These substances will then fall to the lower portion of the magma chamber, where it is hotter, and remelt. This will make the composition of the magma different at the top and bottom of the chamber. This could influence radiometric dates. This mechanism was suggested by Jon Covey and others. The solubility of various substances in the magma also could be a function of temperature, and have an influence on the composition of the magma at the top and bottom of the magma chamber. Finally, minerals that crystallize at the top of the chamber and fall may tend to incorporate other substances, and so these other substances will also tend to have a change in concentration from the top to the bottom of the magma chamber.

There are quite a number of mechanisms in operation in a magma chamber.

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I count at least three so far -- sorting by density, sorting by melting point, and sorting by how easily something is incorporated into minerals that form at the top of a magma chamber. Then you have to remember that sometimes one has repeated melting and solidification, introducing more complications. There is also a fourth mechanism -- differences in solubilities. How anyone can keep track of this all is a mystery to me, especially with the difficulties encountered in exploring magma chambers. These will be definite factors that will change relative concentrations of parent and daughter isotopes in some way, and call into question the reliability of radiometric dating.

In fact, I think this is a very telling argument against radiometric dating. Another possibility to keep in mind is that lead becomes gaseous at low temperatures, and would be gaseous in magma if it were not for the extreme pressures deep in the earth. It also becomes very mobile when hot. These processes could influence the distribution of lead in magma chambers. Let me suggest how these processes could influence uranium-lead and thorium-lead dates: The following is a quote from The Earth: The magnesium and iron rich minerals come from the mantle subducted oceanic plates , while granite comes from continental sediments crustal rock.

The mantle part solidifies first, and is rich in magnesium, iron, and calcium. So it is reasonable to expect that initially, the magma is rich in iron, magnesium, and calcium and poor in uranium, thorium, sodium, and potassium. Later on the magma is poor in iron, magnesium, and calcium and rich in uranium, thorium, sodium, and potassium.

It doesn't say which class lead is in. But lead is a metal, and to me it looks more likely that lead would concentrate along with the iron. If this is so, the magma would initially be poor in thorium and uranium and rich in lead, and as it cooled it would become rich in thorium and uranium and poor in lead. Thus its radiometric age would tend to decrease rapidly with time, and lava emitted later would tend to look younger.

Another point is that of time. Suppose that the uranium does come to the top by whatever reason. Perhaps magma that is uranium rich tends to be lighter than other magma. Or maybe the uranium poor rocks crystallize out first and the remaining magma is enriched in uranium. Would this cause trouble for our explanation? It depends how fast it happened. Some information from the book Uranium Geochemistry, Mineralogy, Geology provided by Jon Covey gives us evidence that fractionation processes are making radiometric dates much, much too old.

Debunking Creationism: "Radiometric Dating Is Unreliable!"

The half life of U is 4. Thus radium is decaying 3 million times as fast as U At equilibrium, which should be attained in , years for this decay series, we should expect to have 3 million times as much U as radium to equalize the amount of daughter produced.


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Cortini says geologists discovered that ten times more Ra than the equilibrium value was present in rocks from Vesuvius. They found similar excess radium at Mount St. Helens, Vulcanello, and Lipari and other volcanic sites. The only place where radioactive equilibrium of the U series exists in zero age lavas is in Hawiian rocks. We need to consider the implications of this for radiometric dating. How is this excess of radium being produced?

This radium cannot be the result of decay of uranium, since there is far too much of it. Either it is the result of an unknown decay process, or it is the result of fractionation which is greatly increasing the concentration of radium or greatly decreasing the concentration of uranium. Thus only a small fraction of the radium present in the lava at most 10 percent is the result of decay of the uranium in the lava.

This is interesting because both radium and lead are daughter products of uranium. If similar fractionation processes are operating for lead, this would mean that only a small fraction of the lead is the result of decay from the parent uranium, implying that the U-Pb radiometric dates are much, much too old.

Cortini, in an article appearing in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research also suggests this possibility. By analogy with the behaviour of Ra, Th and U it can be suggested that Pb, owing to its large mobility, was also fed to the magma by fluids. This can and must be tested. The open-system behaviour of Pb, if true, would have dramatic consequences In fact, U and Th both have isotopes of radium in their decay chains with half lives of a week or two, and 6.

Any process that is concentrating one isotope of radium will probably concentrate the others as well and invalidate these dating methods, too. Radium has a low melting point degrees K which may account for its concentration at the top of magma chambers. What radiometric dating needs to do to show its reliability is to demonstrate that no such fractionation could take place. Can this be done? With so many unknowns I don't think so. How Uranium and Thorium are preferentially incorporated in various minerals I now give evidences that uranium and thorium are incorporated into some minerals more than others.

This is not necessarily a problem for radiometric dating, because it can be taken into account. But as we saw above, processes that take place within magma chambers involving crystallization could result in a different concentration of uranium and thorium at the top of a magma chamber than at the bottom. This can happen because different minerals incorporate different amounts of uranium and thorium, and these different minerals also have different melting points and different densities.

If minerals that crystallize at the top of a magma chamber and fall, tend to incorporate a lot of uranium, this will tend to deplete uranium at the top of the magma chamber, and make the magma there look older. Concerning the distribution of parent and daughter isotopes in various substances, there are appreciable differences. Faure shows that in granite U is 4. Some process is causing the differences in the ratios of these magmatic rocks. Depending on their oxidation state, according to Faure, uranium minerals can be very soluble in water while thorium compounds are, generally, very insoluble.

These elements also show preferences for the minerals in which they are incorporated, so that they will tend to be "dissolved" in certain mineral "solutions" preferentially to one another. More U is found in carbonate rocks, while Th has a very strong preference for granites in comparison. I saw a reference that uranium reacts strongly, and is never found pure in nature.

So the question is what the melting points of its oxides or salts would be, I suppose. I also saw a statement that uranium is abundant in the crust, but never found in high concentrations. To me this indicates a high melting point for its minerals, as those with a low melting point might be expected to concentrate in the magma remaining after others crystallized out.

Such a high melting point would imply fractionation in the magma. Thorium is close to uranium in the periodic table, so it may have similar properties, and similar remarks may apply to it. It turns out that uranium in magma is typically found in the form of uranium dioxide, with a melting point of degrees centrigrade. This high melting point suggests that uranium would crystallize and fall to the bottom of magma chambers. Geologists are aware of the problem of initial concentration of daughter elements, and attempt to take it into account. U-Pb dating attempts to get around the lack of information about initial daughter concentrations by the choice of minerals that are dated.

For example, zircons are thought to accept little lead but much uranium. Thus geologists assume that the lead in zircons resulted from radioactive decay. But I don't know how they can be sure how much lead zircons accept, and even they admit that zircons accept some lead. Lead could easily reside in impurities and imperfections in the crystal structure. Also, John Woodmorappe's paper has some examples of anomalies involving zircons.

It is known that the crystal structure of zircons does not accept much lead. However, it is unrealistic to expect a pure crystal to form in nature. Perfect crystals are very rare. In reality, I would expect that crystal growth would be blocked locally by various things, possibly particles in the way.

Then the surrounding crystal surface would continue to grow and close up the gap, incorporating a tiny amount of magma. I even read something about geologists trying to choose crystals without impurities by visual examination when doing radiometric dating. Thus we can assume that zircons would incorporate some lead in their impurities, potentially invalidating uranium-lead dates obtained from zircons.

Chemical fractionation, as we have seen, calls radiometric dates into question. But this cannot explain the distribution of lead isotopes. There are actually several isotopes of lead that are produced by different parent substances uranium , uranium , and thorium. One would not expect there to be much difference in the concentration of lead isotopes due to fractionation, since isotopes have properties that are very similar.

So one could argue that any variations in Pb ratios would have to result from radioactive decay. However, the composition of lead isotopes between magma chambers could still differ, and lead could be incorporated into lava as it traveled to the surface from surrounding materials. I also recall reading that geologists assume the initial Pb isotope ratios vary from place to place anyway. Later we will see that mixing of two kinds of magma, with different proportions of lead isotopes, could also lead to differences in concentrations.

Mechanism of uranium crystallization and falling through the magma We now consider in more detail the process of fractionation that can cause uranium to be depleted at the top of magma chambers. Uranium and thorium have high melting points and as magma cools, these elements crystallize out of solution and fall to the magma chamber's depths and remelt. This process is known as fractional crystallization. What this does is deplete the upper parts of the chamber of uranium and thorium, leaving the radiogenic lead. As this material leaves, that which is first out will be high in lead and low in parent isotopes.

This will date oldest. Magma escaping later will date younger because it is enriched in U and Th. There will be a concordance or agreement in dates obtained by these seemingly very different dating methods. This mechanism was suggested by Jon Covey. Tarbuck and Lutgens carefully explain the process of fractional crystallization in The Earth: An Introduction to Physical Geology.

They show clear drawings of crystallized minerals falling through the magma and explain that the crystallized minerals do indeed fall through the magma chamber. Further, most minerals of uranium and thorium are denser than other minerals, especially when those minerals are in the liquid phase.

Crystalline solids tend to be denser than liquids from which they came. But the degree to which they are incorporated in other minerals with high melting points might have a greater influence, since the concentrations of uranium and thorium are so low. Now another issue is simply the atomic weight of uranium and thorium, which is high. Any compound containing them is also likely to be heavy and sink to the bottom relative to others, even in a liquid form. If there is significant convection in the magma, this would be minimized, however.

At any rate, there will be some effects of this nature that will produce some kinds of changes in concentration of uranium and thorium relative to lead from the top to the bottom of a magma chamber. Some of the patterns that are produced may appear to give valid radiometric dates. The latter may be explained away due to various mechanisms. Let us consider processes that could cause uranium and thorium to be incorporated into minerals with a high melting point. I read that zircons absorb uranium, but not much lead. Thus they are used for U-Pb dating.

But many minerals take in a lot of uranium. It is also known that uranium is highly reactive. To me this suggests that it is eager to give up its 2 outer electrons. This would tend to produce compounds with a high dipole moment, with a positive charge on uranium and a negative charge on the other elements. This would in turn tend to produce a high melting point, since the atoms would attract one another electrostatically. I'm guessing a little bit here. There are a number of uranium compounds with different melting points, and in general it seems that the ones with the highest melting points are more stable.

I would suppose that in magma, due to reactions, most of the uranium would end up in the most stable compounds with the highest melting points. These would also tend to have high dipole moments. Now, this would also help the uranium to be incorporated into other minerals. The electric charge distribution would create an attraction between the uranium compound and a crystallizing mineral, enabling uranium to be incorporated. But this would be less so for lead, which reacts less strongly, and probably is not incorporated so easily into minerals.

So in the minerals crystallizing at the top of the magma, uranium would be taken in more than lead. These minerals would then fall to the bottom of the magma chamber and thus uranium at the top would be depleted. It doesn't matter if these minerals are relatively lighter than others. The point is that they are heavier than the magma. Two kinds of magma and implications for radiometric dating It turns out that magma has two sources, ocean plates and material from the continents crustal rock. This fact has profound implications for radiometric dating.

Mantle material is very low in uranium and thorium, having only 0. The source of magma for volcanic activity is subducted oceanic plates. Subduction means that these plates are pushed under the continents by motions of the earth's crust. While oceanic plates are basaltic mafic originating from the mid-oceanic ridges due to partial melting of mantle rock, the material that is magma is a combination of oceanic plate material and continental sediments. Subducted oceanic plates begin to melt when they reach depths of about kilometers See Tarbuck, The Earth, p.

In other words, mantle is not the direct source of magma. Further, Faure explains that uraninite UO sub2 is a component of igneous rocks Faure, p. Uraninite is also known as pitchblende. According to plate tectonic theory, continental crust overrides oceanic crust when these plates collide because the continental crust is less dense than the ocean floor. As the ocean floor sinks, it encounters increasing pressures and temperatures within the crust. Ultimately, the pressures and temperatures are so high that the rocks in the subducted oceanic crust melt. Once the rocks melt, a plume of molten material begins to rise in the crust.

As the plume rises it melts and incorporates other crustal rocks. This rising body of magma is an open system with respect to the surrounding crustal rocks. It is possible that these physical processes have an impact on the determined radiometric age of the rock as it cools and crystallizes. Time is not a direct measurement. The actual data are the ratios of parent and daughter isotopes present in the sample. Time is one of the values that can be determined from the slope of the line representing the distribution of the isotopes.

Isotope distributions are determined by the chemical and physical factors governing a given magma chamber. Rhyolites in Yellowstone N. Most genetic models for uranium deposits in sandstones in the U. Most of the uranium deposits in Wyoming are formed from uraniferous groundwaters derived from Precambrian granitic terranes. Uranium in the major uranium deposits in the San Juan basin of New Mexico is believed to have been derived from silicic volcanic ash from Jurassic island arcs at the edge of the continent.

From the above sources, we see that another factor influencing radiometric dates is the proportion of the magma that comes from subducted oceanic plates and the proportion that comes from crustal rock. Initially, we would expect most of it to come from subducted oceanic plates, which are uranium and thorium poor and maybe lead rich. Later, more of the crustal rock would be incorporated by melting into the magma, and thus the magma would be richer in uranium and thorium and poorer in lead.

Scientist Realizes Important Flaw in Radioactive Dating

So this factor would also make the age appear to become younger with time. There are two kinds of magma, and the crustal material which is enriched in uranium also tends to be lighter. For our topic on radiometric dating and fractional crystallization, there is nothing that would prevent uranium and thorium ores from crystallizing within the upper, lighter portion of the magma chamber and descending to the lower boundaries of the sialic portion. The upper portion of the sialic magma would be cooler since its in contact with continental rock, and the high melting point of UO sub 2 uranium dioxide, the common form in granite: The same kind of fractional crystallization would be true of non-granitic melts.

I think we can build a strong case for fictitious ages in magmatic rocks as a result of fractional cystallization and geochemical processes. As we have seen, we cannot ignore geochemical effects while we consider geophysical effects. Sialic granitic and mafic basaltic magma are separated from each other, with uranium and thorium chemically predestined to reside mainly in sialic magma and less in mafic rock. Here is yet another mechanism that can cause trouble for radiometric dating: As lava rises through the crust, it will heat up surrounding rock.

Lead has a low melting point, so it will melt early and enter the magma. This will cause an apparent large age. Uranium has a much higher melting point. It will enter later, probably due to melting of materials in which it is embedded. This will tend to lower the ages. Mechanisms that can create isochrons giving meaningless ages: Geologists attempt to estimate the initial concentration of daughter product by a clever device called an isochron. Let me make some general comments about isochrons.

The idea of isochrons is that one has a parent element, P, a daughter element, D, and another isotope, N, of the daughter that is not generated by decay. One would assume that initially, the concentration of N and D in different locations are proportional, since their chemical properties are very similar. Note that this assumption implies a thorough mixing and melting of the magma, which would also mix in the parent substances as well.

Then we require some process to preferentially concentrate the parent substances in certain places. Radioactive decay would generate a concentration of D proportional to P. By taking enough measurements of the concentrations of P, D, and N, we can solve for c1 and c2, and from c1 we can determine the radiometric age of the sample.

Otherwise, the system is degenerate. Thus we need to have an uneven distribution of D relative to N at the start. If these ratios are observed to obey such a linear relationship in a series of rocks, then an age can be computed from them. The bigger c1 is, the older the rock is. That is, the more daughter product relative to parent product, the greater the age. Thus we have the same general situation as with simiple parent-to-daughter computations, more daughter product implies an older age.

This is a very clever idea. However, there are some problems with it. First, in order to have a meaningful isochron, it is necessary to have an unusual chain of events. Initially, one has to have a uniform ratio of lead isotopes in the magma. Usually the concentration of uranium and thorium varies in different places in rock. This will, over the assumed millions of years, produce uneven concentrations of lead isotopes. To even this out, one has to have a thorough mixing of the magma. Even this is problematical, unless the magma is very hot, and no external material enters.

Now, after the magma is thoroughly mixed, the uranium and thorium will also be thoroughly mixed. What has to happen next to get an isochron is that the uranium or thorium has to concentrate relative to the lead isotopes, more in some places than others. So this implies some kind of chemical fractionation. Then the system has to remain closed for a long time.

This chemical fractionation will most likely arise by some minerals incorporating more or less uranium or thorium relative to lead. Anyway, to me it seems unlikely that this chain of events would occur. Another problem with isochrons is that they can occur by mixing and other processes that result in isochrons yielding meaningless ages. Sometimes, according to Faure, what seems to be an isochron is actually a mixing line, a leftover from differentiation in the magma. Fractionation followed by mixing can create isochrons giving too old ages, without any fractionation of daughter isotopes taking place.

To get an isochron with a false age, all you need is 1 too much daughter element, due to some kind of fractionation and 2 mixing of this with something else that fractionated differently. Since fractionation and mixing are so common, we should expect to find isochrons often. How they correlate with the expected ages of their geologic period is an interesting question. There are at least some outstanding anomalies. Faure states that chemical fractionation produces "fictitious isochrons whose slopes have no time significance.