Journal Highlights

Resolving a Mystery of the Ages

From Research Spotlights—

High-precision radiometric dates shed new light on the puzzling 600,000-year disparity in the timing of one of Earth’s most pivotal timescale boundaries. 

The transition between the Eocene and Oligocene epochs, which occurred about 34 million years ago, is marked in the geologic record by large-scale extinctions and planetwide cooling that abruptly triggered the growth of the Antarctic ice sheet. However, this dramatic change has not yet been tied to a single event, such as a volcanic eruption, which means that a precise understanding of its timing is necessary to evaluate the potential causes. Despite considerable research, however, there is still a 600,000-year discrepancy between the two principal methods—astronomical tuning and radiometry—used to date this pivotal boundary. 

To get a handle on this disparity, Sahy et al. used state-of-the art uranium-lead radiometric techniques to date zircon crystals extracted from 11 volcanic ash layers at three locations in central Italy’s Umbria-Marche sedimentary basin, which hosts the global stratotype section that’s used as a reference point for this transition. The results indicate that previously published dates from two of these locations, which underpin the Eocene-Oligocene portion of the 2012 Geologic Time Scale, are up to 500,000 years too old. The new data pinpoint the Eocene-Oligocene boundary at 34.09 ± 0.08 million years, a date that is in good agreement with the astronomically tuned timescale derived from deep-sea sediment cores when magnetic proxies for the transition are taken into account. 

This research, which resolves one of the fundamental outstanding questions involving the current Cenozoic era, highlights the importance of integrating the results of multiple techniques to ensure the accuracy of the dates underpinning the geologic timescale. The study’s results will have broad implications for researchers in multiple disciplines, including paleoclimatology, paleoceanography, and chronostratigraphy.

-- Terri Cook, Freelance Writer,


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