Historical Geology/Cosmogenic surface dating
In the article we shall discuss the techniques and applications of cosmogenic surface dating.
Unlike other dating methods, which tell us how long it is since a rock was formed, cosmogenic surface dating tells us how long a rock has been exposed on the surface.
In some cases, as when the rock is a lava flow, this amounts to the same thing. But there are other ways in which a rock can become exposed, as for example when a glacier erodes the sediment covering bedrock: when the glacier melts, the bedrock will be exposed.
For cosmogenic surface dating, the two most commonly used isotopes are the cosmogenic isotopes 10Be, which is produced from 16O and which has a half-life of 1.39 million years; and 26Al, which is produced from 26Si and which has a half-life of 717,000 years.
Because the isotopes we're using have a short half-life, it follows that if a rock has been buried for a few million years the quantities of these isotopes will be negligible. But when the rock becomes exposed on the surface, and so exposed to cosmic rays, these cosmogenic isotopes will begin to accumulate in the rock.
The rate at which they do so will depend on a number of factors, including:
- The exposure of the rock. A nearby obstacle such as a mountain will shield the rock from cosmic rays coming from that direction, reducing the creation of cosmogenic isotopes.
- The elevation of the rock. If the rock is on top of a mountain, then the cosmic rays have less atmosphere to travel through to get to the rock, and so more of them will make the journey all the way to the rock without being absorbed in the atmosphere on the way.
- The depth from which we take the sample. Cosmic rays can penetrate a few meters through rock or soil, but the further they travel the more likely they are to be absorbed, so a rock sample will get more exposure to cosmic rays if it is taken from the surface than if it is taken from a meter down.
If we take all the relevant factors into account, and calculate, estimate, or simply measure the amount of cosmic rays a given rock is exposed to per year, and if we measure the quantities of the cosmogenic isotopes in a sample of the rock, then we can figure out how long the rock has been exposed.
Limitations of the method
The quantity of the relevant isotopes in the rock will not simply grow without limit with longer and longer exposure to cosmic rays; rather they will tend towards a maximum (a secular equilibrium): the point at which the cosmogenic cosmogenic production of unstable isotopes is equaled by their destruction by decay. In practice, we are not going to be able to tell the difference between a rock which has reached 99.9% of this maximum and one which has reached 99.99%. Consequently, the practical limit for the use of cosmogenic surface dating seems to be about 10 million years; after that, one old rock looks much like another. The lower limit for application of the method seems to be about ten years, because of practical limits on the accuracy with which we can measure the quantities of the relevant isotopes.