Three principles used in relative dating

Brongniart was the first to use fossils to date rock strata. James Hutton is often considered the father of geology.

Relative dating

Hutton developed the theory of uniformatarianism , which states that geologic events are caused by natural processes, many of which are operating in our own time. Put another way, the natural laws that we know about in the present have been constant over the geologic past. The concept of geologic time or deep time was a logical consequence of this theory. The unconformity consists of many vertical tilted layers of grey shale overlaid by many layers of horizontal red sandstone.

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Playfair later commented that, "the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time. Hutton gives us three more laws to consider when seeking relative dates for rock layers, one of which, the law of inclusions was described earlier. The law of cross-cutting states any feature that cuts across a rock or sediment must be younger than the rock or sediment through which it cuts. Examples include fractures, faults, and igneous intrusions.


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Igneous intrusions are sometimes referred to as a seperate principle, the principle of intrusive relationships. Unconformities represent gaps in geologic time when layers were not deposited or when erosion removed layers. This principle includes three types of unconformities.

A disconformity is an unconformity between parallel layers. An angular unconformity exists when younger more parallel strata overlie tilted strata. 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.


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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. If sufficient sedimentary material is available, it will be deposited up to the limits of the sedimentary basin. Often, the sedimentary basin is within rocks that are very different from the sediments that are being deposited, in which the lateral limits of the sedimentary layer will be marked by an abrupt change in rock type.

Principles of Relative Dating 2 - Inclusions, Faunal Succession, and Unconformities

Melt inclusions are small parcels or "blobs" of molten rock that are trapped within crystals that grow in the magmas that form igneous rocks. In many respects they are analogous to fluid inclusions. Melt inclusions are generally small — most are less than micrometres across a micrometre is one thousandth of a millimeter, or about 0.

Nevertheless, they can provide an abundance of useful information. Using microscopic observations and a range of chemical microanalysis techniques geochemists and igneous petrologists can obtain a range of useful information from melt inclusions. Two of the most common uses of melt inclusions are to study the compositions of magmas present early in the history of specific magma systems.

Relative dating - Wikipedia

This is because inclusions can act like "fossils" — trapping and preserving these early melts before they are modified by later igneous processes. In addition, because they are trapped at high pressures many melt inclusions also provide important information about the contents of volatile elements such as H 2 O, CO 2 , S and Cl that drive explosive volcanic eruptions. Sorby was the first to document microscopic melt inclusions in crystals.

The study of melt inclusions has been driven more recently by the development of sophisticated chemical analysis techniques. Scientists from the former Soviet Union lead the study of melt inclusions in the decades after World War II Sobolev and Kostyuk, , and developed methods for heating melt inclusions under a microscope, so changes could be directly observed. Although they are small, melt inclusions may contain a number of different constituents, including glass which represents magma that has been quenched by rapid cooling , small crystals and a separate vapour-rich bubble.

They occur in most of the crystals found in igneous rocks and are common in the minerals quartz , feldspar , olivine and pyroxene. The formation of melt inclusions appears to be a normal part of the crystallization of minerals within magmas, and they can be found in both volcanic and plutonic rocks. The law of included fragments is a method of relative dating in geology. Essentially, this law states that clasts in a rock are older than the rock itself.

Another example is a derived fossil , which is a fossil that has been eroded from an older bed and redeposited into a younger one. In other words, as sediment fills a depositional basins we would expect the upper most surface of the sediment to be parallel to the horizon. Subsequent layers would follow the same pattern. As sediment weathers and erodes from its source, and as long as it is does not encounter any physical barriers to its movement, the sediment will be deposited in all directions until it thins or fades into a different sediment type.


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For purposes of relative dating this principle is used to identify faults and erosional features within the rock record. The principle of cross-cutting states that any geologic feature that crosses other layers or rock must be younger then the material it cuts across. Using this principle any fault or igneous intrusion must be younger than all material it or layers it crosses.

Once a rock is lithified no other material can be incorporated within its internal structure. In order for any material to be included within in the rock it must have been present at the time the rock was lithified.