TPO 1 Lecture2 Geology
Listen to part of a lecture in a geology class.
Ok, let’s get started. Great. Today I want to talk about a way in which we are able to determine how old a piece of land, or some other geologic feature is - dating techniques. I’m going to talk about a particular dating technique. Why? Good dating is key to good analysis. In other words, if you want to know how a land formation was formed, the first thing you probably want to know is how old it is. It’s fundamental.
Uh… Take the Grand Canyon for instance. Now, we geologists thought we had a pretty good idea of how the Grand Canyon in the southwestern United States was formed. We knew that it was formed from sandstone that solidified somewhere between 150 and 300 million years ago. Before it solidified, it was just regular sand. Essentially it was part of a vast desert. And until just recently, most of us thought the sand had come from an ancient mountain range fairly close by that flattened out over time. That’s been the conventional wisdom among geologists for quite some time.
But now we’ve learned something different, and quite surprising, using a technique called Uranium-Lead Dating. I should say that Uranium-Lead Dating has been around for quite a while. But there have been some recent refinements. I will get into this in a minute. Anyway, Uranium-Lead Dating has produced some surprises. Two geologists discovered that about half of the sand from the Grand Canyon was actually once part of the Appalachian Mountains. That’s really eye-opening news, since the Appalachian Mountain Range is, of course, thousands of kilometers to the east of the Grand Canyon. Sounds pretty unbelievable, right? Of course, the obvious question is how did that sand end up so far west? The theory is that huge rivers and wind carried the sand west where it mixed in with the sand that was already there.
Well, this was a pretty revolutionary finding. Um… and it was basically because of Uranium-Lead Dating. Why? Well, as everyone in this class should know, we usually look at the grain type within sandstone, meaning the actual particles in the sandstone, to determine where it came from. You can do other things too, like look at the wind or water that brought the grains to their location and figure out which way it was flowing. But that’s only useful up to a point, and that’s not what these two geologists did.
Uranium-Lead Dating allowed them to go about it in an entirely different way. What they did was: they looked at the grains of Zircon in the sandstone. Zircon is a material that contains radioactive Uranium, which makes it very useful for dating purposes. Zircon starts off as molten magma, the hot lava from volcanoes. This magma then crystallizes. And when Zircon crystallizes, the Uranium inside it begins to change into Lead. So if you measure the amount of Lead in the Zircon grain, you can figure out when the grain was formed. After that, you can determine the age of Zircon from different mountain ranges. Once you do that, you can compare the age of the Zircon in the sandstone in your sample to the age of the Zircon in the mountains. If the age of the Zircon matches the age of one of the mountain ranges, then it means the sandstone .