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The Age of the Earth

By Editorial Staff
Published December 22, 2007

Time and earth history is perhaps the most debated area in the whole question of the origin of life. Everyone seems to have his own idea about how old the earth is. In a real sense time is only vitally important to the evolutionist. Evolution needs lots of time for life to have arrived on the scene. Short time periods would seriously undermine the theory. On the other hand, the creationist says that an intelligent designer outside this universe made the earth and the life on it. Whether this life was created in six days or six billion years is insignificant to the scientific view of creation. The issue of time, then, is critical for the evolutionist – not for the creationist.

This article will touch on a variety of important time measurements such as radiometric dating, oil well pressure, decay of earth’s magnetic field, polonium halos, and others. Be critical of your own bias and ask questions about the standard scenario of five billion years. How does one select a time clock? How does one know if the “clock” is giving the correct time?

Frequently we hear that anyone can see this is an ancient, billion-year-old earth that we are living upon. One resource for teachers says that this whole question has no relevance because we know the earth is 4.5 billion years old. Have you asked the question, what would a young earth look like?

When we look at many geologic formations we see evidences of catastrophe. But if we see a valley with a small stream running through it, can we assume this is evidence for long time periods? To answer these questions geologists, like Dr. Steve Austin, have been carrying out valuable studies of the catastrophe at Mount St. Helens and its effect in producing geological formations. We can view his work with great interest because it also seems to relate directly to questions we have about other geological structures on planet earth.

The explosion of Mount St. Helens in Washington State on May 18, 1980 was initiated by an earthquake and rockslide involving one half cubic mile of rock. As the summit and north slope slid off the volcano that morning, pressure was released inside the volcano where super-hot liquid water immediately flashed into steam. The northward-directed steam explosion released energy equivalent to 20 million tons of TNT which toppled 150 square miles of forest in six minutes. In Spirit Lake north of the volcano, an enormous water wave initiated by one eighth cubic mile of rock slide debris stripped trees from slopes as much as 850 feet above the pre-eruption water level. The total energy output on May 18 was equivalent to 400 million tons of TNT, or approximately 20,000 Hiroshima-size atomic bombs. (Austin, 1986)

Dr. Austin points out that up to 600 feet of strata were formed since 1980 at Mount St. Helens, and this from one of the smaller catastrophes in earth history! He states that Mount St. Helens provides a rare opportunity to study transient geologic processes which produced, within a few months, changes which geologists might otherwise assume might require many thousands, or even millions of years.

How are Rocks Dated?

Hundreds of thousands and even billions of years are claimed for radiometric dating techniques. No one was there to verify the initial amount of the radioactive mineral. No one was there to watch the radiometric decay taking place. We assume that it must have been constant and unchanging from what we can measure today.

Consequently, it is very important that we consider carefully the assumptions that have to be made. If our assumptions are wrong then our results will be wrong.

Assumptions for Radiometric Dating

1. The system must have been a closed system. By this we mean that the system cannot be altered by contamination from the outside or loose material from inside the system migrating to the outside. It must be constant.

2. The system must have a starting point – a beginning. For example, there would have to be just uranium and no lead in the beginning of the Uranium 238 and Lead 206 series.

3. The rate of decay must always have been the same. If decay rates of the material vary, the resulting measured time cannot be trusted.

Is there such a thing, in nature, as a closed system? Is it possible to know if the system started at a zero point? Are we sure about the rate of decay way back in history? In addressing these questions, we will deal with generalized information and then direct you to more detailed sources if you choose to explore further.

Dating techniques are all based on certain assumptions. The true age depends entirely upon the validity of the assumptions. Let’s look at these assumptions and see how they stand up to the test.

Uranium Dating Method

First, the uranium method is really a whole family of decay methods and not just one. The method depends upon uranium and its sister element thorium going through long decay chains until finally the stable element, Lead 206 is reached. In this process, alpha particles are given off. In fact, eight alpha particles are given off from each Uranium 238 atom that decays to Lead 206 .

In evaluating the uranium dating method, the fact is that uranium minerals always exist in open systems. This causes us to immediately question the validity of the method. One of the chief authorities on radioactive dating, Dr. Henry Faul, said:

Uranium and lead both migrate (in sales) in geologic time, and detailed analyses have shown that useful ages cannot be obtained with them. Similar difficulties prevail with pitchblend veins. Here again widely diverging ages can be measured on samples from the same spot. (Faul, 1966)

Remember the one criterion for valid dates is a closed system. We find all of the age dating methods (rubidium-stontium, uranium-lead and potassium argon) can give different and widely varying dates. The lead ages, for example, have given consistently older dates then the others. This very fact encouraged Dr. Leon T. Silvers of the California Institute of Technology to do an experiment that showed lead could vaporize and move out of the sample (Driscoll, 1972). A Scientist could calculate a “low” age for the sample from which the lead escaped and a “high” age for the sample where the lead migrated to.

Potassium-Argon Dating Method

This method is the most popular method for dating rocks, and is used extensively to give general dates for fossils found in some rock formations. Potassium minerals are found in igneous and in some sedimentary rocks, therefore the Potassium-Argon method isn’t as restricted in its use as is uranium. Here is what happens: Potassium(40) decays into Argon(40) when its molecules capture an electron. Potassium(40) has a half life of 1.3 billion years. In other words, one half of the Potassium(40) has decayed in 1.3 billion years.

The K-Ar system behaves a little differently from the uranium series above. An amount of Potassium(40) decay (11%) will become Argon(40), instead of Calcium(40). The ratio of potassium to argon is considered in the calculations for the age factor of a particular rock. But again, we find that the ideal does not exist in nature. We don’t know for sure how much potassium and argon were originally there in the sample. Furthermore, we don’t have any way of knowing that the sample was not contaminated in nature or exposed to migration.

The Question of Helium

Alpha particles, which are actually helium nuclei and are positive (+) are given off by the decay of the Earth’s radioactive isotopes. Eventually, the helium migrates out of rocks in the earth’s crust and ends up in the atmosphere as helium gas.

Here these particles of helium gas reach their upper limits in the atmosphere where a few molecules escape. There is continuing research going on concerning the helium inventory in the atmosphere and one of the scientists investigating this problem is Dr. Larry Vardiman of Christian Heritage College and the Institute for Creation Research. Even though helium in the atmosphere does not date the rocks, it does tell us something about the earth’s age.

If the earth was billions of years old, the radioactive production of helium in the earth’s crust should have added a large quantity of helium to its atmosphere. Current diffusion models all indicate that helium escapes to space from the atmosphere at a rate much less than its production rate. The low concentration of helium actually measured would suggest that the earth’s atmosphere must be quite young. (Vardiman, 1986)

If the low concentration of helium in the atmosphere is valid then we must consider this as a positive evidence for a young earth.

Radiocarbon Dating

Most of you will recognize this as “carbon” dating. This type of dating is confined to things that were once alive. All living things are made of molecules containing carbon. Carbon also exists in the gases of our atmosphere, such as CO, CO2, etc. In addition to this all of our food is made up of carbon in some form. For example, our fats, sugars, and many other molecules are carbon based (organic). We can understand why Carbon(14), radioactive carbon, as well as non-radioactive carbon, (12)C, can penetrate all parts of a living plant or animal. Carbon(14) gets into a living system as some ratio of Carbon(14) to Carbon(12). Carbon(14) and Carbon(12) are continually taken in to the living system.

When the organism dies then the Carbon(14) to Carbon(12) ratio changes as the radioactive Carbon(14) begins to decay to the stable Carbon(12). We can measure the ration of Carbon(14) to Carbon(12) in living things and also measure the Carbon(14) to Carbon(12) ratio in a dead organism. Knowing the decay rate of Carbon(14), (a half-life of 5730 years) we can tell how old the organism is. Unfortunately, as with the other radiometric dating methods, there are assumptions and these must be considered.

Where does the radioactive carbon come from? Cosmic rays strike air particles (78 % nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 1% other gases) and knock the neutrons out of them. Colliding neutrons cause protons to leave the nitrogen atoms (Nitrogen(14)) which causes them to change to Carbon(14) – radioactive carbon. Any Carbon(14) atom can attach to oxygen to make carbon-dioxide (CO2) which is one of the gases that we breathe. Therefore, they thoroughly permeate living systems. Once the living organism dies then the Carbon(14) is no longer replenished and the Carbon(14) to Carbon(12) ratio changes as the radioactive carbon decays to non-radioactive carbon.

When Carbon(14) was first suggested as a dating method, it was assumed that the earth was billions of years old. If the world were this old, the amount of Carbon(14) produced in the atmosphere would have equilibrated – it would have become a stable, predictable amount. But what if the earth is young? The amount of radioactive carbon in the past would be less than it is today. This error would mean that Carbon(14) dating methods would be more accurate for dating recently dead materials (only a few thousand years dead), but would give ages with increasingly greater error the farther back in history from which the sample comes. In other words, there is much work yet to be done to calibrate and validate this method before it becomes an accurate measure of time.

Polonium Halos

Polonium halos are perhaps the most significant evidence for a young earth. Dr. Robert Gentry’s landmark study of polonium halos is published, in detail, in the book Creation’s Tiny Mystery (1986).

A little history on the “radio halos” of polonium will help you understand the significance of these microscopic marks in the earth’s first of “oldest” rocks. If you refer to the uranium decay series, you will see elements (isotopes) Polonium(218) and Polonium(210).

All of these isotopes are radioactive and give off radioactive particles. Now the interesting part is that the Polonium isotopes all have short half lives (the time needed for half of the Polonium to decay). Polonium(218) has a half life of 3 minutes, Polonium (214) a half life of164 microseconds, and Polonium(210) has a half life of138.4 days.

What does this mean? First of all, the halos (halos formed by radioactive decay) are from 218, 214, and 210 isotopes of polonium that has no connection with uranium. In other words, they exist by themselves without any uranium parent present! When they are found in the oldest rocks (granites and biotites) one has to imagine that the rocks must have solidified very quickly in order to allow the decay of the radioactive particles to make these distinct marks.

If the first rocks cooled slowly (as all evolution models demand) then in molten rock there could be no marks from the decay. The decaying particles can only make their marks after the molten rocks have solidified. Gentry concludes that this scientific evidence establishes that the age of the earth’s oldest rocks cannot be more than thousands of years. Polonium halos in our oldest rocks give strong evidence as a limiting chronometer, that is, a time clock which can set an upward limit on the age of the earth’s crust.

But here is the interesting part: if the evolutionist refuses to accept that the oldest rocks were instantly created, as evidences by the Polonium halos, then he must accept that decay rates are not constant! This admission then puts the third assumption of radiometric dating (constant decay rates) into disarray.

The radiometric dating methods discussed are but one type of time clock. Below are some other time clocks, which, in may cases require fewer assumptions than the radiometric methods discussed above.

Oil Well Fluid Pressures

“Oil well fluid pressures” are a limiting chronometer that speaks to young earth ages. We are told by geophysicists that the existing pressures found in these deep wells would cause the oil to seep out of the formations in which it was trapped if the true age of the earth were billions of years. (Cook, 1968)

Eroding of the Continents

Eroding of continents seems to indicate that if this process had been going on for millions of years (14 million is the present calculation) then all of the present continents, eroding at present rates, would have been eroded to sea level. (Nevins, 1978)

Decay of the Earth’s Magnetic Field

Decay of the Earth’s Magnetic Field can be used as a limiting chronometer. Dr. Thomas Barnes has calculated the present strength of the earth’s magnetic field and extrapolated (calculated) backwards. He has concluded that the strength of the magnetic field a million years ago would have been so great that it would have torn the earth apart. This information limits what the age of the earth could be. He estimates that it took thousands of years, rather than billions of years, for the earth’s magnet to have decayed to its present strength.

Now there are no questions about the existence of the magnetic field but there are many questions about how it got here and whether it has undergone numerous reversals. At this point in time Dr. Barnes has firmly refuted the various challenges that have been offered by some against this strong evidence. (Barnes, 1983)


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