The nuclear decay of radioactive isotopes is a process that behaves in a clock-like fashion and is thus a useful tool for determining the absolute age of rocks.
Radioactive decay is the process by which a “parent” isotope changes into a “daughter” isotope.
Gaps in the geologic record, called unconformities, are common where deposition stopped and erosion removed the previously deposited material.
Fortunately, distinctive features such as index fossils can aid in matching, or correlating, rocks and formations from several incomplete areas to create a more complete geologic record for relative dating.
The probability of a parent atom decaying in a fixed period of time is always the same for all atoms of that type regardless of temperature, pressure, or chemical conditions. The time required for one-half of any original number of parent atoms to decay is the half-life, which is related to the decay constant by a simple mathematical formula.
Relative dating techniques provide geologists abundant evidence of the incredible vastness of geologic time and ancient age of many rocks and formations.
However, in order to place absolute dates on the relative time scale, other dating methods must be considered.
Rates of radioactive decay are constant and measured in terms of half-life, the time it takes half of a parent isotope to decay into a stable daughter isotope.
Some rock-forming minerals contain naturally occurring radioactive isotopes with very long half-lives unaffected by chemical or physical conditions that exist after the rock is formed.