Geological Time Scale
Few discussions in geology can occur without reference
to geologic time. Geologic time is often dicussed in two forms:
Think of relative time as physical subdivisions of the rock found
in the Earth's stratigraphy, and absolute time as the measurements taken upon
those to determine the actual time which has expired. Absolute time
measurements can be used to calibrate the relative time scale,
producing an integrated geologic or "geochronologic" time scale.
- Relative time ("chronostratic") -- subdivisions of the Earth's
geology in a specific order based upon relative age relationships (most
commonly, vertical/stratigraphic position). These subdivisions are given
names, most of which can be recognized globally, usually on the basis
- Absolute time ("chronometric") -- numerical ages in
"millions of years" or some other measurement. These are most commonly
obtained via radiometric dating methods performed on appropriate rock types.
It is important to realize that with new information about
subdivision or correlation of relative time, or new measurements of
absolute time, the dates applied to the time scale can and do change.
Revisions to the relative time scale have occurred since the late 1700s.
The numerically calibrated geologic time scale has been continuously
refined since approximately the 1930s (e.g., Holmes, 1937), although the
amount of change with each revision has become smaller over the decades (see
fig. 1.5 and 1.6 of Harland et al.) and a few numerical
estimates were available previously (but often for the duration of the
entire scale rather than its individual subdivisions).
In addition, like
any good scientific measurement, every dated boundary has an uncertainty
associated with it, expressed as "+- X millions of years". These can not
be included in the diagram for practical reasons, but can be found in
Harland et al., 1990, along with a detailed description of the
history of earlier-proposed time scales and the terminology,
methodology and data involved in constructing this geological time scale.
Because of continual refinement, none of the values
depicted in this diagram should be considered definitive,
eventhough some have not changed significantly in a
long time and are very well constrained (e.g., the Cretaceous/Tertiary
boundary has been at 65+-1 Ma for decades, and has been tested
innumerable times, with almost all dates somewhere between 64 and 66
million years). The overall duration and relative length
of these large geologic intervals is unlikely to change much, but
the precise numbers may "wiggle" a bit as a result of new data.
This gelogical time scale is based upon Harland et al.,
1990, but with the Precambrian/Cambrian boundary modified according to the
most recently-published radiometric dates on that interval, revising
the boundary from 570+-15 million years to 543+-1 million years ago
(Grotzinger et al., 1995). Other changes have been proposed since
1990 (e.g., revision of the Cretaceous by Obradovich, 1993), but are
not incorporated because they are relatively small.
The time scale is depicted in its traditional form with oldest
at the bottom and youngest at the top -- the present day is at the zero mark.
Geologic time is finely subdivided through most of the Phanerozoic (see
Harland et al., 1990 for details), but most
of the finer subdivisions (e.g., epochs) are commonly referred to by
non-specialists only in the Tertiary. Because of the vast difference in
scale, the younger intervals have been successively expanded to the right
to show some of these finer subdivisions.
Blatt, H.; Berry, W.B.N.; and Brande, S., 1991. Principles of Stratigraphic
Analysis. Blackwell Scientific Publications: Boston, p.1-512.
ISBN 0-86542-069-6 [Chapter 4 provides an introduction to geologic time.
This is a good starting point to get the basic principles.]
Grotzinger, J.P.; Bowring, S.A.; Saylor, B.Z.; and Kaufman, A.J., 1995
(Oct.27). Biostratigraphic and geochronologic constraints on early
animal evolution. Science, v.270, p.598-604. [The most recent
revision of the age of the Precambrian/Cambrian boundary.]
Harland, W.B.; Armstrong, R.L.; Cox, A.V.; Craig, L.E.; Smith, A.G.; and
Smith, D.G., 1990. A geologic time scale, 1989 edition. Cambridge
University Press: Cambridge, p.1-263. ISBN 0-521-38765-5
[One of the more recent compilations of the entire geologic time
Holmes, A., 1937. The Age of the Earth (new edition, revised).
Nelson:London, p.1-263. [One of the earlier attempts at an
integrated geochronologic time scale.]
Obradovich, J.D., 1993. A Cretaceous time scale. IN: Caldwell, W.G.E.
and Kauffman, E.G. (eds.), Evolution of the Western Interior Basin.
Geological Association of Canada, Special Paper 39, p.379-396.
[Proposes revisions to the Cretaceous time scale at the resolution
of stages (finer divisions than shown on diagram above) and
Authorship and distribution
(c) 1996 Andrew MacRae,
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