Radiometric age dating accuracy
To determine the relative age of different rocks, geologists start with the assumption that unless something has happened, in a sequence of sedimentary rock layers, the newer rock layers will be on top of older ones. This rule is common sense, but it serves as a powerful reference point.
Geologists draw on it and other basic principles ( to determine the relative ages of rocks or features such as faults.
This method works because some unstable (radioactive) isotopes of some elements decay at a known rate into daughter products. Half-life simply means the amount of time it takes for half of a remaining particular isotope to decay to a daughter product. Good discussion from the US Geological Survey: geochronolgists just measure the ratio of the remaining parent atom to the amount of daughter and voila, they know how long the molecule has been hanging out decaying. So to date those, geologists look for layers like volcanic ash that might be sandwiched between the sedimentary layers, and that tend to have radioactive elements.
On the other hand, the half-life of the isotope potassium 40 as it decays to argon is 1.26 billion years.
So carbon 14 is used to date materials that aren’t that old geologically, say in the tens of thousands of years, while potassium-argon dating can be used to determine the ages of much older materials, in the millions and billions year range.
That’s because zircon is super tough – it resists weathering. Each radioactive isotope works best for particular applications.
The half-life of carbon 14, for example, is 5,730 years.