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Fission track dating

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Title: Fission track dating  
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Subject: Thermochronology, Uranium, Mountain Lake cluster, Geochronometry
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Fission track dating

Fission track dating is a radiometric dating technique based on analyses of the damage trails, or tracks, left by fission fragments in certain uranium-bearing minerals and glasses.[1] Fission-track dating is a relatively simple, but robust method of radiometric dating that has made a significant impact on understanding the thermal history of continental crust, the timing of volcanic events, and the source and age of different archeological artifacts. The method involves using the number of fission events produced from the spontaneous decay of uranium-238 in common accessory minerals to date the time of rock cooling below closure temperature. Fission tracks are sensitive to heat, and therefore the technique is useful at unraveling the thermal evolution of rocks and minerals. Most current research using fission tracks is aimed at: a) understanding the evolution of mountain belts; b) determining the source or provenance of sediments; c) studying the thermal evolution of basins; d) determining the age of poorly dated strata; and e) dating and provenance determination of archeological artifacts.


Unlike other isotopic dating methods, the "daughter" in fission track dating is an effect in the crystal rather than a daughter isotope. Uranium-238 undergoes spontaneous fission decay at a known rate, and it is the only isotope with a decay rate that is relevant to the significant production of natural fission tracks; other isotopes have fission decay rates too slow to be of consequence. The fragments emitted by this fission process leave trails of damage (fossil tracks or ion tracks) in the crystal structure of the mineral that contains the uranium. The process of track production is essentially the same by which swift heavy ions produce ion tracks. Chemical etching of polished internal surfaces of these minerals reveals spontaneous fission tracks, and the track density can be determined. Because etched tracks are relatively large (in the range 1 to 15 micrometres), counting can be done by optical microscopy, although other imaging techniques are used. The density of fossil tracks correlates with the cooling age of the sample and with uranium content, which needs to be determined independently.

To determine the uranium content, several methods have been used. One method is by neutron irradiation, where the sample is irradiated with thermal neutrons in a nuclear reactor, with an external detector, such as mica, affixed to the grain surface. The neutron irradiation induces fission of uranium-235 in the sample, and the resulting induced tracks are used to determine the uranium content of the sample because the 235U:238U ratio is well known and assumed constant in nature. To determine the number of induced fission events that occurred during neutron irradiation an external detector is attached to the sample and both sample and detector are simultaneously irradiated by thermal neutrons. The external detector is typically a low-uranium mica flake, but plastics such as CR-39 have also been used. The resulting induced fission of the uranium-235 in the sample creates induced tracks in the overlying external detector, which are later revealed by chemical etching. The ratio of spontaneous to induced tracks is proportional to the age.

Another method of determining uranium concentration is through LA-ICPMS, a technique where the crystal is hit with a laser beam and ablated, and then the material is passed through a mass spectrometer.


Unlike many other dating techniques, fission-track dating is uniquely suited for determining low-temperature thermal events using common accessory minerals over a very wide geological range (typically 0.1 Ma to 2000 Ma). Apatite, sphene, zircon, micas and volcanic glass typically contain enough uranium to be useful in dating samples of relatively young age (Mesozoic and Cenozoic) and are the materials most useful for this technique. Additionally low-uranium epidotes and garnets may be used for very old samples (Paleozoic to Precambrian). The fission-track dating technique is widely used in understanding the thermal evolution of the upper crust, especially in mountain belts. Fission tracks are preserved in a crystal when the ambient temperature of the rock falls below the annealing temperature. This annealing temperature varies from mineral to mineral and is the basis for determining low-temperature vs. time histories. While the details of closure temperatures are complicated, they are approximately 70 to 110 °C for typical apatite, c. 230 to 250 °C for zircon, and c. 300°C for titanite.

Because heating of a sample above the annealing temperature causes the fission damage to heal or anneal, the technique is useful for dating the most recent cooling event in the history of the sample. This resetting of the clock can be used to investigate the thermal history of Olduvai Gorge.

Provenance analysis of detrital grains

A number of datable minerals occur as common detrital grains in sandstones, and if the strata have not been buried too deeply, these minerals grains retain information about the source rock. Fission track analysis of these minerals provides information about the thermal evolution of the source rocks and therefore can be used to understand provenance and the evolution of mountain belts that shed the sediment.[2] This technique of detrital analysis is most commonly applied to zircon because it is very common and robust in the sedimentary system, and in addition it has a relatively high annealing temperature so that in many sedimentary basins the crystals are not reset by later heating.

Fission-track dating of detrital zircon is a widely applied analytical tool used to understand the tectonic evolution of source terrains that have left a long and continuous erosional record in adjacent basin strata. Early studies focused on using the cooling ages in detrital zircon from stratigraphic sequences to document the timing and rate of erosion of rocks in adjacent orogenic belts (mountain ranges). A number of recent studies have combined U/Pb and/or Helium dating (U+Th/He) on single crystals to document the specific history of individual crystals. This double-dating approach is an extremely powerful provenance tool because a nearly complete crystal history can be obtained, and therefore researchers can pinpoint specific source areas with distinct geologic histories with relative certainty.[3] Fission-track ages on detrital zircon can be as young as 1 Ma to as old as 2000 Ma.[4]


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Further reading

  • Naeser, C. W., Fission-Track Dating and Geologic Annealing of Fission Tracks, in: Jäger, E. and J. C. Hunziker, Lectures in Isotope Geology, Springer-Verlag, 1979, ISBN 3-540-09158-0
  • U. S. G. S., Fission Tracks: Technique, Retrieved 27 October 2005.
  • Fission Track, Retrieved 27 October 2005.
  • Garver, J.I., 2008, Fission-track dating. In Encyclopedia of Paleoclimatology and Ancient Environments, V. Gornitz, (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Earth Science Series, Kluwer Academic Press, p. 247-249.
  • Wagner, G. A., and Van den Haute, P., 1992, Fission-Track Dating; Kluwer Academic Publishers, 285 pp.
  • Enkelmann, E., Garver, J.I., and Pavlis, T.L., 2008, Rapid exhumation of ice-covered rocks of the Chugach-St. Elias Orogen, Southeast Alaska. Geology, v. 36, n.12, p. 915-918.
  • Garver, J.I. and Montario, M.J., 2008. Detrital fission-track ages from the Upper Cambrian Potsdam Formation, New York: implications for the low-temperature thermal history of the Grenville terrane. In: Garver, J.I., and Montario, M.J. (eds.) Proceedings from the 11th International Conference on thermochronometry, Anchorage Alaska, Sept. 2008, p. 87-89.
  • Bernet, M., and Garver, J.I., 2005, Chapter 8: Fission-track analysis of Detrital zircon, In P.W. Reiners, and T. A. Ehlers, (eds.), Low-Temperature thermochronology: Techniques, Interpretations, and Applications, Reviews in Mineralogy and Geochemistry Series, v. 58, p. 205-237.
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