Uranium–lead dating

Uranium–lead dating, abbreviated U–Pb dating, is one of the oldest[1] and most refined of the radiometric dating schemes. It can be used to date rocks that formed and crystallised [2] from about 1 million years to over 4.5 billion years ago with routine precisions in the 0.1–1 percent range.[3]

The dating method is usually performed on the mineral zircon. The mineral incorporates uranium and thorium atoms into its crystal structure, but strongly rejects lead. Therefore, one can assume that the entire lead content of the zircon is radiogenic, i.e. it is produced solely by a process of radioactive decay after the formation of the mineral. 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 238U to 206Pb, with a half-life of 4.47 billion years and the actinium series from 235U to 207Pb, with a half-life of 710 million years.

Decay routes

The above uranium to lead decay routes occur via a series of alpha (and beta) decays, in which 238U with daughter nuclides undergo total eight alpha and six beta decays whereas 235U with daughters only experience seven alpha and four beta decays.[4]

The existence of two 'parallel' uranium–lead decay routes (238U to 206Pb and 235U to 207Pb) 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 238U to 206Pb) 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. 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 (ZrSiO4) is most commonly used, other minerals such as monazite (see: monazite geochronology), titanite, and baddeleyite can also be used.

Where crystals such as zircon with uranium and thorium inclusions do not occur, a better, more inclusive, model of the data must be applied. Uranium-lead dating techniques have also been applied to other minerals such as calcite/aragonite and other carbonate minerals. 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.

Interaction between mineralogy and radioactive breakdown

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.

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.[4] Fission tracks and micro-cracks within the crystal will further extend this radiation damage network.

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.[5]


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. That is


  • is the number of uranium atoms measured now.
  • is the number of uranium atoms originally - equal to the sum of uranium and lead atoms measured now.
  • is the decay rate of Uranium.
  • is the age of the zircon, which one wants to determine.

This gives

which can be written as

The more commonly used decay chains of Uranium and Lead gives the following equations:



These are said to yield concordant ages. It is these concordant ages, plotted over a series of time intervals, that result in the concordant line.[6]

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.[6]

Figure 1: Concordia diagram for data published by Mattinson[5] for zircon samples from Klamath Mountains in Northern California. Ages for the concordia increase in increments of 100 million years.

Undamaged zircon retains the lead generated by radioactive decay of uranium and thorium until very high temperatures (about 900 °C), though accumulated radiation damage within zones of very high uranium can lower this temperature substantially. 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.

See also


  1. ^ Boltwood, B.B., 1907, On the ultimate disintegration products of the radio-active elements. Part II. The disintegration products of uranium: American Journal of Science 23: 77-88.
  2. ^ Schoene, Blair (2014). "U–Th–Pb Geochronology" (PDF). Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA. Retrieved 7 January 2018.
  3. ^ Parrish, Randall R.; Noble, Stephen R., 2003. Zircon U-Th-Pb Geochronology by Isotope Dilution – Thermal Ionization Mass Spectrometry (ID-TIMS). In Zircon (eds. J. Hanchar and P. Hoskin). Reviews in Mineralogy and Geochemistry, Mineralogical Society of America. 183-213.
  4. ^ a b Romer, R.L. 2003. Alpha-recoil in U-Pb geochronology: Effective sample size matters. Contributions to Mineralogy and Petrology 145, (4): 481-491.
  5. ^ a b Mattinson, J.M., 2005. Zircon U-Pb Chemical abrasion (“CA-TIMS”) method: Combined annealing and multi-step dissolution analysis for Improved precision and accuracy of zircon ages. Chemical Geology. 220, 47-66.
  6. ^ a b Dickin, A.P., 2005. Radiogenic Isotope Geology 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 101.
Absolute dating

Absolute dating is the process of determining an age on a specified chronology in archaeology and geology. Some scientists prefer the terms chronometric or calendar dating, as use of the word "absolute" implies an unwarranted certainty of accuracy. Absolute dating provides a numerical age or range in contrast with relative dating which places events in order without any measure of the age between events.

In archaeology, absolute dating is usually based on the physical, chemical, and life properties of the materials of artifacts, buildings, or other items that have been modified by humans and by historical associations with materials with known dates (coins and written history). Techniques include tree rings in timbers, radiocarbon dating of wood or bones, and trapped-charge dating methods such as thermoluminescence dating of glazed ceramics. Coins found in excavations may have their production date written on them, or there may be written records describing the coin and when it was used, allowing the site to be associated with a particular calendar year.

In historical geology, the primary methods of absolute dating involve using the radioactive decay of elements trapped in rocks or minerals, including isotope systems from very young (radiocarbon dating with 14C) to systems such as uranium–lead dating that allow acquisition of absolute ages for some of the oldest rocks on earth.

Cañadón Asfalto Formation

The Cañadón Asfalto Formation is a Early Jurassic to Middle Jurassic geologic formation, from the Jurassic period of the Mesozoic Era. It was formerly thought to be Mid to Late Jurassic in age, but Uranium-Lead dating of the volcanic tuff beds have revised the age to the mid Toarcian to sometime in the Mid Jurassic, probably the Bajocian.It is located in the Cañadón Asfalto Basin, a rift basin in Chubut Province of northwestern Patagonia, in southern Argentina. The basin started forming in the earliest Jurassic.It is composed of fluvial-lacustrine deposits, typically sandstones and shales with a saline paleolake carbonate evaporitic sequence of limestone in its lowest Las Chacritas Member. Interbedded with these are volcanic tuffites. It is divided into two members, the Las Chacritas Member, and the overlying Puesto Almada member, but the latter has also been assigned to the overlying Cañadón Calcáreo Formation by other authors.According to a palynological study the dominant pollen was produced by the conifer families Cheirolepidiaceae (Classopollis) and Araucariaceae (mainly Araucariacites and Callialasporites), suggesting that warm-temperate and relatively humid conditions under highly seasonal climate prevailed during the depositional times of the unit. The abundance of Botryococcus supports the presence of a shallow lake with probably saline conditions.

Cañadón Calcáreo Formation

The Cañadón Calcáreo Formation is a Oxfordian to Kimmeridgian-aged geologic formation, from the Cañadón Asfalto Basin in Chubut Province, Argentina, a rift basin that started forming since the earliest Jurassic. It was formerly thought to date into the Cretaceous, but the age has been revised with Uranium Lead dating as likely being solely Late Jurassic in age.It is a subunit of the Loco Trapial Group, close to the city Cerro Condor in the Chubut Province of northwestern Patagonia, in southern Argentina. The formation is composed primarily of fluvial sandstones alongside shales and volcanic tuffitesThe formation preserves fishes, crocodylomorphs and some dinosaur taxa, as well as conifers.

Chaicayán Group

Chaicayán Group is a group of poorly defined sedimentary rock strata found in Taitao Peninsula in the west coast of Patagonia. The commones rock types are siltstone and sandstone. Conglomerate occur but is less common.Study of fossils and uranium–lead dating of detrital zircons indicate a Miocene age, at least for the upper sequences. The Chaicayán Group deposited likely as a result of a marine transgression that drowned much of Patagonia and Central Chile in the Late Oligocene and Miocene.The group is intruded by porphyritic stocks and sills of Pliocene age.

Clair Cameron Patterson

Clair Cameron Patterson (June 2, 1922 – December 5, 1995) was an American geochemist. Born in Mitchellville, Iowa, Patterson graduated from Grinnell College. He later received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and spent his entire professional career at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

In collaboration with George Tilton, Patterson developed the uranium–lead dating method into lead–lead dating. By using lead isotopic data from the Canyon Diablo meteorite, he calculated an age for the Earth of 4.55 billion years, which was a figure far more accurate than those that existed at the time, and one that has remained largely unchanged since 1956.

Patterson had first encountered lead contamination in the late 1940s as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. His work on this subject led to a total re-evaluation of the growth in industrial lead concentrations in the atmosphere and the human body, and his subsequent campaigning was seminal in the banning of tetraethyllead in gasoline and lead solder in food cans.

Environmental radioactivity

Environmental radioactivity is produced by radioactive materials in the human environment. While some radioisotopes, such as strontium-90 (90Sr) and technetium-99 (99Tc), are only found on Earth as a result of human activity, and some, like potassium-40 (40K), are only present due to natural processes, a few isotopes, e.g. tritium (3H), result from both natural processes and human activities. The concentration and location of some natural isotopes, particularly uranium-238 (238U), can be affected by human activity.


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.

Geology of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands

The geology of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is part of the largely submerged Scotia Ridge. The island of South Georgia is unusual among oceanic islands for having pre-Cretaceous sedimentary rocks underlying much of the island and a significant portion of felsic igneous rocks. Two-thirds of the island consists of intensely folded flysch, capped with Aptian age fossils, tuff and greywacke in the Cumberland Bay Series. The series includes slate, phyllite, conglomerate, siltstone and sandstone. In the west are basalt flows, pillowed spilite, prehnite and trachyandesite, as well as shale with radiolarite fossils.Uranium-lead dating of zircon and muscovite grains from the southern Andes and South Georgia (gathered from the peraluminous Darwin granite suite and undersea Tobifera Formation rhyolite) indicates that the rocks formed during the middle Jurassic. The grains were likely remnant from 1.5 billion years ago.

The fragmentation of the Gondwana supercontinent is preserved in an ophiolite in the Rocas Verdes marginal basin—part of the Larsen Harbour complex on South Georgia. As the continent fragmented, oceanic crust formed in the Weddell Sea in the Middle Jurassic. The ridge's Beagle granite suite has complicated uranium-lead data. Feldspar phenocrysts formed in cracks within the Beagle granite pluton, likely related to the tectonism affecting the high-grade metamorphic rocks of the Cordillera Darwin in Tierra del Fuego.

Iceland Lake Pluton

The Iceland Lake Pluton, formerly known as the Ingall Lake Batholith, is a large granitic intrusion in Briggs and Strathcona townships of Temagami, Northeastern Ontario, Canada. It is one of the three separate granitoid intrusions that constitute the Temagami Greenstone Belt, consisting of rocks ranging from diorite to quartz monzonite. The age of the intrusion is estimated to be about 2,736 million years old, as well as an adjacent rhyolitic lava flow using the uranium–lead dating technique. This suggests that the Iceland Lake Pluton might be the remnants of a magma chamber of a volcano that erupted felsic magma. The pluton is overlain by sediments of the younger Huronian Supergroup.

Chlorite trondhjemite of the Iceland Lake Pluton is exposed along the Lake Temagami Access Road and Iceland Lake.

Isotopes of lead

Lead (82Pb) has four stable isotopes: 204Pb, 206Pb, 207Pb, 208Pb. Lead-204 is entirely a primordial nuclide and is not a radiogenic nuclide. The three isotopes lead-206, lead-207, and lead-208 represent the ends of three decay chains: the uranium series (or radium series), the actinium series, and the thorium series, respectively; a fourth decay chain, the neptunium series, terminates with a thallium isotope. The three series terminating in lead represent the decay chain products of long-lived primordial U-238, U-235, and Th-232, respectively. However, each of them also occurs, to some extent, as primordial isotopes that were made in supernovae, rather than radiogenically as daughter products. The fixed ratio of lead-204 to the primordial amounts of the other lead isotopes may be used as the baseline to estimate the extra amounts of radiogenic lead present in rocks as a result of decay from uranium and thorium. (See lead-lead dating and uranium-lead dating).

The longest-lived radioisotopes are 205Pb with a half-life of ≈15.3 million years and 202Pb with a half-life of ≈53,000 years. Of naturally occurring radioisotopes, the longest half-life is 22.3 years for 210Pb, which is useful for studying the sedimentation chronology of environmental samples on time scales shorter than 100 years.The relative abundances of the four stable isotopes are approximately 1.5%, 24%, 22%, and 52.5%, combining to give a standard atomic weight (abundance-weighted average of the stable isotopes) of 207.2(1). Lead is the element with the heaviest stable isotope, 208Pb. (The more massive 209Bi, long considered to be stable, actually has a half-life of 1.9×1019 years). A total of 38 Pb isotopes are now known, including very unstable synthetic species.

In its fully ionized state the isotope 205Pb also becomes stable.

Lead–lead dating

Lead–lead dating is a method for dating geological samples, normally based on 'whole-rock' samples of material such as granite. For most dating requirements it has been superseded by uranium–lead dating (U–Pb dating), but in certain specialized situations (such as dating meteorites and the age of the Earth) it is more important than U–Pb dating.

Mare Imbrium

Mare Imbrium (Latin for "Sea of Showers" or "Sea of Rains") is a vast lava plain within the Imbrium Basin on the Moon and is one of the larger craters in the Solar System. The Imbrium Basin formed from the collision of a proto-planet during the Late Heavy Bombardment. Basaltic lava later flooded the giant crater to form the flat volcanic plain seen today. The basin's age has been estimated using uranium–lead dating methods to 3938 ± 4 million years ago, the diameter of the impactor has been estimated to be 250 ± 25 km. The Moon's maria (plural of mare) have fewer features than other areas of the Moon because molten lava pooled in the craters and formed a relatively smooth surface. Mare Imbrium is not as flat as it was originally because later events have altered its surface.

Radiometric dating

Radiometric dating, radioactive dating or radioisotope dating is a technique used to date materials such as rocks or carbon, in which trace radioactive impurities were selectively incorporated when they were formed. The method compares the abundance of a naturally occurring radioactive isotope within the material to the abundance of its decay products, which form at a known constant rate of decay. The use of radiometric dating was first published in 1907 by Bertram Boltwood and is now the principal source of information about the absolute age of rocks and other geological features, including the age of fossilized life forms or the age of the Earth itself, and can also be used to date a wide range of natural and man-made materials.

Together with stratigraphic principles, radiometric dating methods are used in geochronology to establish the geologic time scale. Among the best-known techniques are radiocarbon dating, potassium–argon dating and uranium–lead dating. By allowing the establishment of geological timescales, it provides a significant source of information about the ages of fossils and the deduced rates of evolutionary change. Radiometric dating is also used to date archaeological materials, including ancient artifacts.

Different methods of radiometric dating vary in the timescale over which they are accurate and the materials to which they can be applied.

Semail Ophiolite

The Semail Ophiolite of the Hajar Mountains of Oman and the United Arab Emirates is a large slab of oceanic crust, made of volcanic rocks and ultramafic rocks from the Earth's upper mantle, that was overthrust onto continental crust as an ophiolite. It is located on the eastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula and covers an area of approximately 100,000 km2. Based on uranium-lead dating techniques, the Semail Ophiolite formed in the Late Cretaceous. It is primarily made of silicate rocks with (SiO2) content ranging from 45–77 wt%. The Semail Ophiolite is important because it is rich in copper and chromite ore bodies, and because it also provides valuable information about the ocean floor and the upper mantle on land. Geologists have studied the area, attempting to find the best model explaining the formation of the Semail Ophiolite.


Sterkfontein (Afrikaans for Strong Spring) is a set of limestone caves of special interest to paleo-anthropologists located in Gauteng province, about 40 kilometres (25 mi) northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa in the Muldersdrift area close to the town of Krugersdorp. The archaeological sites of Swartkrans and Kromdraai are in the same area. Sterkfontein is a South African National Heritage Site and was also declared a World Heritage Site in 2000. The area in which it is situated is known as the Cradle of Humankind. The Sterkfontein Caves are also home to numerous wild African species including Belonogaster petiolata, a wasp species of which there is a large nesting presence.Numerous early hominin remains have been found at the site over the last few decades. These have been attributed to Australopithecus, early Homo and Paranthropus.

Thomas Edvard Krogh

Thomas Edvard "Tom" Krogh, FRSC (1936 – April 29, 2008) was a geochronologist and a former curator for the Royal Ontario Museum. He revolutionized the technique of radiometric uranium-lead dating with the development of new laboratory procedures and analytical methodologies. His discoveries have yielded an unprecedented level of precision in the dating of Precambrian rocks. Krogh's techniques have become the international de facto standard. The application of these techniques has provided a detailed understanding of the evolution of the Earth's Precambrian shield areas.

Toqui Formation

The Toqui Formation is a geological formation in the Aysén Region of southern Chile. It has been dated to the Tithonian stage of the Late Jurassic by uranium–lead dating of zircons, providing an age of 147 ± 0.1 Ma. It consists of an sequence of clastic sedimentary sandstones and conglomerates, interbedded with volcanic tuffs and ignimbrite. The dinosaurs Chilesaurus and indeterminate diplodocids are known from the formation. The formation was deposited in a fluvio-deltaic environment.

Uranium–thorium dating

Uranium–thorium dating, also called thorium-230 dating, uranium-series disequilibrium dating or uranium-series dating, is a radiometric dating technique established in the 1960s which has been used since the 1970s to determine the age of calcium carbonate materials such as speleothem or coral. Unlike other commonly used radiometric dating techniques such as rubidium–strontium or uranium–lead dating, the uranium-thorium technique does not measure accumulation of a stable end-member decay product. Instead, it calculates an age from the degree to which secular equilibrium has been restored between the radioactive isotope thorium-230 and its radioactive parent uranium-234 within a sample.

Uranium–uranium dating

Uranium–uranium dating is a radiometric dating technique which compares two isotopes of uranium (U) in a sample: uranium-234 (234U) and uranium-238 (238U). It is one of several radiometric dating techniques exploiting the uranium radioactive decay series, in which 238U undergoes 14 alpha and beta decay events on the way to the stable isotope 206Pb. Other dating techniques using this decay series include uranium–thorium dating and uranium–lead dating.

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