Geochronology is the science of determining the age of rocks, fossils, and sediments using signatures inherent in the rocks themselves. Absolute geochronology can be accomplished through radioactive isotopes, whereas relative geochronology is provided by tools such as palaeomagnetism and stable isotope ratios. By combining multiple geochronological (and biostratigraphic) indicators the precision of the recovered age can be improved.

Geochronology is different in application from biostratigraphy, which is the science of assigning sedimentary rocks to a known geological period via describing, cataloging and comparing fossil floral and faunal assemblages. Biostratigraphy does not directly provide an absolute age determination of a rock, but merely places it within an interval of time at which that fossil assemblage is known to have coexisted. Both disciplines work together hand in hand, however, to the point where they share the same system of naming rock layers and the time spans utilized to classify layers within a stratum.

The science of geochronology is the prime tool used in the discipline of chronostratigraphy, which attempts to derive absolute age dates for all fossil assemblages and determine the geologic history of the Earth and extraterrestrial bodies.

Geological time spiral
An artistic depiction of the major events in the history of Earth

Dating methods

Units in geochronology and stratigraphy[1]
Segments of rock (strata) in chronostratigraphy Time spans in geochronology Notes to
geochronological units
Eonothem Eon 4 total, half a billion years or more
Erathem Era 10 defined, several hundred million years
System Period 22 defined, tens to ~one hundred million years
Series Epoch 34 defined, tens of millions of years
Stage Age 99 defined, millions of years
Chronozone Chron subdivision of an age, not used by the ICS timescale

Radiometric dating

By measuring the amount of radioactive decay of a radioactive isotope with a known half-life, geologists can establish the absolute age of the parent material. A number of radioactive isotopes are used for this purpose, and depending on the rate of decay, are used for dating different geological periods. More slowly decaying isotopes are useful for longer periods of time, but less accurate in absolute years. With the exception of the radiocarbon method, most of these techniques are actually based on measuring an increase in the abundance of a radiogenic isotope, which is the decay-product of the radioactive parent isotope.[2][3][4] Two or more radiometric methods can be used in concert to achieve more robust results.[5] Most radiometric methods are suitable for geological time only, but some such as the radiocarbon method and the 40Ar/39Ar dating method can be extended into the time of early human life[6] and into recorded history.[7]

Some of the commonly used techniques are:

Cosmogenic nuclide geochronology

A series of related techniques for determining the age at which a geomorphic surface was created (exposure dating), or at which formerly surficial materials were buried (burial dating). Exposure dating uses the concentration of exotic nuclides (e.g. 10Be, 26Al, 36Cl) produced by cosmic rays interacting with Earth materials as a proxy for the age at which a surface, such as an alluvial fan, was created. Burial dating uses the differential radioactive decay of 2 cosmogenic elements as a proxy for the age at which a sediment was screened by burial from further cosmic rays exposure.

Luminescence dating

Luminescence dating techniques observe 'light' emitted from materials such as quartz, diamond, feldspar, and calcite. Many types of luminescence techniques are utilized in geology, including optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), cathodoluminescence (CL), and thermoluminescence (TL). Thermoluminescence and optically stimulated luminescence are used in archaeology to date 'fired' objects such as pottery or cooking stones and can be used to observe sand migration.

Incremental dating

Incremental dating techniques allow the construction of year-by-year annual chronologies, which can be fixed (i.e. linked to the present day and thus calendar or sidereal time) or floating.

Paleomagnetic dating

A sequence of paleomagnetic poles (usually called virtual geomagnetic poles), which are already well defined in age, constitutes an apparent polar wander path (APWP). Such a path is constructed for a large continental block. APWPs for different continents can be used as a reference for newly obtained poles for the rocks with unknown age. For paleomagnetic dating, it is suggested to use the APWP in order to date a pole obtained from rocks or sediments of unknown age by linking the paleopole to the nearest point on the APWP. Two methods of paleomagnetic dating have been suggested (1) Angular method and (2) Rotation method.[9] First method is used for paleomagnetic dating of rocks inside of the same continental block. The second method is used for the folded areas where tectonic rotations are possible.


Magnetostratigraphy determines age from the pattern of magnetic polarity zones in a series of bedded sedimentary and/or volcanic rocks by comparison to the magnetic polarity timescale. The polarity timescale has been previously determined by dating of seafloor magnetic anomalies, radiometrically dating volcanic rocks within magnetostratigraphic sections, and astronomically dating magnetostratigraphic sections.


Global trends in isotope compositions, particularly Carbon 13 and strontium isotopes, can be used to correlate strata.[10]

Correlation of marker horizons

Icelandic tephra
Tephra horizons in south-central Iceland. The thick and light-to-dark coloured layer at the height of the volcanologists hands is a marker horizon of rhyolitic-to-basaltic tephra from Hekla.

Marker horizons are stratigraphic units of the same age and of such distinctive composition and appearance, that despite their presence in different geographic sites, there is certainty about their age-equivalence. Fossil faunal and floral assemblages, both marine and terrestrial, make for distinctive marker horizons.[11] Tephrochronology is a method for geochemical correlation of unknown volcanic ash (tephra) to geochemically fingerprinted, dated tephra. Tephra is also often used as a dating tool in archaeology, since the dates of some eruptions are well-established.

Geological Hierarchy of Chronological Periodization

Geochronology: From largest to smallest:

  1. Supereon
  2. Eon
  3. Era
  4. Period
  5. Epoch
  6. Age
  7. Chron

Differences from chronostratigraphy

It is important not to confuse geochronologic and chronostratigraphic units.[12] Geochronological units are periods of time, thus it is correct to say that Tyrannosaurus rex lived during the Late Cretaceous Epoch.[13] Chronostratigraphic units are geological material, so it is also correct to say that fossils of the genus Tyrannosaurus have been found in the Upper Cretaceous Series.[14] In the same way, it is entirely possible to go and visit an Upper Cretaceous Series deposit – such as the Hell Creek deposit where the Tyrannosaurus fossils were found – but it is naturally impossible to visit the Late Cretaceous Epoch as that is a period of time.

See also


  1. ^ Cohen, K.M.; Finney, S.; Gibbard, P.L. (2015), International Chronostratigraphic Chart (PDF), International Commission on Stratigraphy.
  2. ^ Dickin, A. P. 1995. Radiogenic Isotope Geology. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-59891-5
  3. ^ Faure, G. 1986. Principles of isotope geology. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-471-86412-9
  4. ^ Faure, G., and Mensing, D. 2005. "Isotopes - Principles and applications". 3rd Edition. J. Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-38437-2
  5. ^ Dalrymple G. B., Grove M., Lovera O. M., Harrison, T. M., Hulen, J. B., and Lanphere, M. A. 1999. Age and thermal history of the Geysers plutonic complex (felsite unit), Geysers geothermal field, California: a 40Ar/39Ar and U–Pb study. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 173, 285–298 [1]
  6. ^ Ludwig, K. R. and Renne, P. R. 2000. Geochronology on the Paleoanthropological Time Scale. Evolutionary Anthropology, 9, 101-110 [2]
  7. ^ Renne, P. R., Sharp, W. D., Deino. A. L., Orsi, G., and Civetta, L. 1997. 40Ar/39Ar dating into the historical realm: Calibration against Pliny the Younger. Science, 277, 1279-1280 "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-10-30. Retrieved 2008-10-25.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  8. ^ Plastino, W.; Kaihola, L.; Bartolomei, P.; Bella, F. (2001). "Cosmic Background Reduction In The Radiocarbon Measurement By Scintillation Spectrometry At The Underground Laboratory Of Gran Sasso" (PDF). Radiocarbon. 43 (2A): 157–161. doi:10.1017/S0033822200037954. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-05-27.
  9. ^ Hnatyshin, D., and Kravchinsky, V.A., 2014. Paleomagnetic dating: Methods, MATLAB software, example. Tectonophysics, doi: 10.1016/j.tecto.2014.05.013 [3]
  10. ^ Brasier, M D; Sukhov, S S (1 April 1998). "The falling amplitude of carbon isotopic oscillations through the Lower to Middle Cambrian: northern Siberia data". Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences. 35 (4): 353–373. doi:10.1139/e97-122.
  11. ^ Demidov, I.N. 2006. Identification of marker horizon in bottom sediments of the Onega Periglacial Lake. Doklady Earth Sciences, 407, 213-216 [4]
  12. ^ David Weishampel: The Evolution and Extinction of the Dinosaurs, 1996, Cambridge Press, ISBN 0-521-44496-9
  13. ^ Julia Jackson: Glossary of Geology, 1987, American Geological Institute, ISBN 0-922152-34-9
  14. ^ Smith, J.B., Lamanna, M.C., Lacovara, K.J., Dodson, P. Jnr., Poole, J.C. and Giegengack, R. 2001. A Giant Sauropod Dinosaur from an Upper Cretaceous Mangrove Deposit in Egypt. Science, 292, 1704-1707 "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-09-08. Retrieved 2008-10-24.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)

Further reading

  • Smart, P.L., and Frances, P.D. (1991), Quaternary dating methods - a user's guide. Quaternary Research Association Technical Guide No.4 ISBN 0-907780-08-3
  • Lowe, J.J., and Walker, M.J.C. (1997), Reconstructing Quaternary Environments (2nd edition). Longman publishing ISBN 0-582-10166-2
  • Mattinson, J. M. (2013), Revolution and evolution: 100 years of U-Pb geochronology. Elements 9, 53-57.
  • Geochronology bibliography Talk:Origins Archive

External links

Age (geology)

A geologic age is a subdivision of geologic time that divides an epoch into smaller parts. A succession of rock strata laid down in a single age on the geologic timescale is a stage.

Early Cretaceous

The Early Cretaceous (geochronological name) or the Lower Cretaceous (chronostratigraphic name), is the earlier or lower of the two major divisions of the Cretaceous. It is usually considered to stretch from 146 Ma to 100 Ma.

During this time many new types of dinosaur appeared or came into prominence, including ceratopsians, spinosaurids, carcharodontosaurids and coelurosaurs, while survivors from the Late Jurassic continued.

Angiosperms (flowering plants) appeared for the first time during the Early Cretaceous. This time also saw the evolution of the first members of the Neornithes (modern birds).

Early Pleistocene

The Early Pleistocene (also known as the Lower Pleistocene) is a subepoch in the international geologic timescale or a subseries in chronostratigraphy, being the earliest or lowest subdivision of the Quaternary period/system and Pleistocene epoch/series. It spans the time between 2.588 ± 0.005 Ma (million years ago) and 0.781 ± 0.005 Ma. The Early Pleistocene consists of the Gelasian and the Calabrian ages.

Epoch (geology)

In geochronology, an epoch is a subdivision of the geologic timescale that is longer than an age but shorter than a period. The current epoch is the Holocene Epoch of the Quaternary Period. Rock layers deposited during an epoch are called a series. Series are subdivisions of the stratigraphic column that, like epochs, are subdivisions of the geologic timescale. Like other geochronological divisions, epochs are normally separated by significant changes in the rock layers to which they correspond.

Epochs are most commonly used for the younger Cenozoic Era, where a greater collection of fossils has been found and paleontologists have more detailed knowledge of the events that occurred during those times. They are less commonly referred to for the other eras and eons, since less fossil evidence exists that allows us to form a clearer view of those time periods.


The Famennian is the latter of two faunal stages in the Late Devonian epoch. It lasted from 372.2 million years ago to 358.9 million years ago. It was preceded by the Frasnian stage and followed by the Tournaisian stage.

It was during this age that tetrapods first appeared. In the seas, a novel major group of ammonoid cephalopods called clymeniids appeared, underwent tremendous diversification and spread worldwide, then just as suddenly went extinct.

The beginning of the Famennian is marked by a major extinction event, the Kellwasser Event, and the end with a smaller but still quite severe extinction event, the Hangenberg Event.

North American subdivisions of the Famennian include the Chautauquan, Canadaway, Conneaut, Conneautan, Conewango and Conewangan.


The Furongian is the fourth and final series of the Cambrian. It lasted from 497 to 485.4 million years ago. It succeeds the Miaolingian series of the Cambrian and precedes the Lower Ordovician Tremadocian stage. It is subdivided into three stages: the Paibian, Jiangshanian and the unnamed 10th stage of the Cambrian.

Geological period

A geological period is one of the several subdivisions of geologic time enabling cross-referencing of rocks and geologic events from place to place.

These periods form elements of a hierarchy of divisions into which geologists have split the Earth's history.

Eons and eras are larger subdivisions than periods while periods themselves may be divided into epochs and ages.

The rocks formed during a period belong to a stratigraphic unit called a system.

Late Miocene

The Late Miocene (also known as Late Miocene

) is a sub-epoch of the Miocene Epoch made up of two stages. The Tortonian and Messinian stages comprise the Late Miocene sub-epoch.

The sub-epoch lasted from 11.63 Ma (million years ago) to 5.333 Ma. The Late Miocene Period was when the Australian and Central African species, respectively Thylacinus potens and Amphimachairodus kabir, lived.


The Lopingian is the uppermost series/last epoch of the Permian. It is the last epoch of the Paleozoic. The Lopingian was preceded by the Guadalupian and followed by the Early Triassic.

The Lopingian is often synonymous with the informal terms late Permian or upper Permian.

The name was introduced by Amadeus William Grabau in 1931 and derives from Leping, Jiangxi in the then Republic of China. It consists of two stages/ages. The earlier is the Wuchiapingian and the later is the Changhsingian.The International Chronostratigraphic Chart (v2018/07) provides a numerical age of 259.1 ±0.5 Ma. If a Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP) has been approved, the lower boundary of the earliest stage determines numerical age of an epoch. The GSSP for the Wuchiapingian has a numerical age of 259.8 ± 0.4 Ma.The Lopingian ended with the Permian–Triassic extinction event.


The Mesoarchean (, also spelled Mesoarchaean) is a geologic era within the Archean Eon, spanning 3,200 to 2,800 million years ago. The era is defined chronometrically and is not referenced to a specific level in a rock section on Earth. Fossils from Australia show that stromatolites have lived on Earth since the Mesoarchean. The Pongola glaciation occurred around 2,900 million years ago. The first supercontinent Vaalbara broke up during this era about 2,800 million years ago.

The earliest reefs date from this era, and were probably formed by stromatolites. The surface temperature during the Mesoarchean was likely not much higher than modern-day temperatures. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration was only a few times higher than its pre-industrial value, and the Sun's luminosity was only 70% of its current value, cancelling out the influence of a greater degree of greenhouse effect that may be operating.


The Miaolingian is the third Series of the Cambrian period, and was formally named in 2018. It lasted from about 509 to 497 million years ago and is divided into 3 stages: the Wuliuan, the Drumian, and the Guzhangian. The Miaolingian is preceded by the unnamed Cambrian Series 2 and succeeded by the Furongian series.

Middle Miocene

The Middle Miocene is a sub-epoch of the Miocene Epoch made up of two stages: the Langhian and Serravallian stages. The Middle Miocene is preceded by the Early Miocene.

The sub-epoch lasted from 15.97 ± 0.05 Ma to 11.608 ± 0.005 Ma (million years ago). During this period, a sharp drop in global temperatures took place. This event is known as the Middle Miocene Climate Transition.

For the purposes of establishing European Land Mammal Ages this sub-epoch is equivalent to the Astaracian age.

Middle Triassic

In the geologic timescale, the Middle Triassic is the second of three epochs of the Triassic period or the middle of three series in which the Triassic system is divided. It spans the time between 247.2 Ma and 237 Ma (million years ago). The Middle Triassic is divided into the Anisian and Ladinian ages or stages.

Formerly the middle series in the Triassic was also known as Muschelkalk. This name is now only used for a specific unit of rock strata with approximately Middle Triassic age, found in western Europe.

During this time there were no flowering plants, but instead there were ferns and mosses. Small dinosaurs began to appear like Nyasasaurus and the ichnogenus Iranosauripus.

Mississippian (geology)

The Mississippian (also known as Lower Carboniferous or Early Carboniferous) is a subperiod in the geologic timescale or a subsystem of the geologic record. It is the earliest/lowermost of two subperiods of the Carboniferous period lasting from roughly 358.9 to 323.2 million years ago. As with most other geochronologic units, the rock beds that define the Mississippian are well identified, but the exact start and end dates are uncertain by a few million years. The Mississippian is so named because rocks with this age are exposed in the Mississippi River valley.

The Mississippian was a period of marine transgression in the Northern Hemisphere: the sea level was so high that only the Fennoscandian Shield and the Laurentian Shield were dry land. The cratons were surrounded by extensive delta systems and lagoons, and carbonate sedimentation on the surrounding continental platforms, covered by shallow seas.In North America, where the interval consists primarily of marine limestones, it is treated as a geologic period between the Devonian and the Pennsylvanian. During the Mississippian an important phase of orogeny occurred in the Appalachian Mountains. It is a major rock-building period named for the exposures in the Mississippi Valley region. The USGS geologic time scale shows its relation to other periods.In Europe, the Mississippian and Pennsylvanian are one more-or-less continuous sequence of lowland continental deposits and are grouped together as the Carboniferous system, and sometimes called the Upper Carboniferous and Lower Carboniferous instead.


The Paleoarchean (), also spelled Palaeoarchaean (formerly known as early Archean), is a geologic era within the Archaean Eon. It spans the period of time 3,600 to 3,200 million years ago—the era is defined chronometrically and is not referenced to a specific level of a rock section on Earth. The name derives from Greek "Palaios" ancient. The oldest ascertained life form of fossilized bacteria in microbial mats, 3,480 million years old, found in Western Australia, is from this era. The first supercontinent Vaalbara formed during this period.

During this era, a large asteroid, about 37 to 58 kilometres (23–36 mi) wide, collided with the Earth in the area of South Africa about 3.26 billion years ago, creating the features known as the Barberton greenstone belt.

Pennsylvanian (geology)

The Pennsylvanian (also known as Upper Carboniferous or Late Carboniferous) is, in the ICS geologic timescale, the younger of two subperiods (or upper of two subsystems) of the Carboniferous Period. It lasted from roughly 323.2 million years ago to 298.9 million years ago Ma (million years ago). As with most other geochronologic units, the rock beds that define the Pennsylvanian are well identified, but the exact date of the start and end are uncertain by a few hundred thousand years. The Pennsylvanian is named after the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, where the coal-productive beds of this age are widespread.The division between Pennsylvanian and Mississippian comes from North American stratigraphy. In North America, where the early Carboniferous beds are primarily marine limestones, the Pennsylvanian was in the past treated as a full-fledged geologic period between the Mississippian and the Permian. In Europe, the Mississippian and Pennsylvanian are one more-or-less continuous sequence of lowland continental deposits and are grouped together as the Carboniferous Period. The current internationally used geologic timescale of the ICS gives the Mississippian and Pennsylvanian the rank of subperiods, subdivisions of the Carboniferous Period.


The Stenian Period (from Greek στενός (stenós), meaning "narrow") is the final geologic period in the Mesoproterozoic Era and lasted from 1200 Mya to 1000 Mya (million years ago). Instead of being based on stratigraphy, these dates are defined chronometrically. The name derives from narrow polymetamorphic belts formed over this period.

Preceded by the Ectasian period and followed by the Neoproterozoic Era.

The supercontinent Rodinia assembled during the Stenian. It would last into the Tonian period.

This period includes the formation of the Keweenawan Rift at about 1100 Mya.


The Tonian (from Greek τόνος (tónos), meaning "stretch") is the first geologic period of the Neoproterozoic Era. It lasted from 1000 Mya to 720 Mya (million years ago). Instead of being based on stratigraphy, these dates are defined by the ICS based on radiometric chronometry. The Tonian is preceded by the Stenian Period of the Mesoproterozoic era and followed by the Cryogenian.

Rifting leading to the breakup of supercontinent Rodinia, which had formed in the mid-Stenian, occurred during this period, starting from 900 to 850 Mya.


In the geologic timescale, the Valanginian is an age or stage of the Early or Lower Cretaceous. It spans between 139.8 ± 3.0 Ma and 132.9 ± 2.0 Ma (million years ago). The Valanginian stage succeeds the Berriasian stage of the Lower Cretaceous and precedes the Hauterivian stage of the Lower Cretaceous.

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