"Excess Argon": The "Archilles' Heel" of Potassium-Argon and Argon-Argon "Dating" of Volcanic Rocks
by Andrew A. Snelling, Ph.D.
For more than three decades potassium-argon (K-Ar) and argon-argon (Ar-Ar) dating of rocks has been crucial in underpinning the billions of years for Earth history claimed by evolutionists. Critical to these dating methods is the assumption that there was no radiogenic argon (40Ar*) in the rocks (e.g., basalt) when they formed, which is usually stated as self-evident. Dalrymple argues strongly:
The K-Ar method is the only decay scheme that can be used with little or no concern for the initial presence of the daughter isotope. This is because 40Ar is an inert gas that does not combine chemically with any other element and so escapes easily from rocks when they are heated. Thus, while a rock is molten, the 40Ar formed by the decay of 40K escapes from the liquid.1
However, this dogmatic statement is inconsistent with even Dalrymple's own work 25 years earlier on 26 historic, subaerial lava flows, 20% of which he found had non-zero concentrations of 40Ar* (or excess argon) in violation of this key assumption of the K-Ar dating method.2 The historically dated flows and their "ages" were:
Hualalai basalt, Hawaii (AD 1800-1801) 1.6±0.16 Ma; 1.41±0.08 Ma
Mt. Etna basalt, Sicily (122 BC) 0.25±0.08 Ma
Mt. Etna basalt, Sicily (AD 1972) 0.35±0.14 Ma
Mt. Lassen plagioclase, California (AD 1915) 0.11±0.03 Ma
Sunset Crater basalt, Arizona (AD 1064-1065) 0.27±0.09 Ma; 0.25±0.15 Ma
Far from being rare, there are numerous reported examples of excess 40Ar* in recent or young volcanic rocks producing excessively old K-Ar "ages":3
Akka Water Fall flow, Hawaii (Pleistocene) 32.3±7.2 Ma
Kilauea Iki basalt, Hawaii (AD 1959) 8.5±6.8 Ma
Mt. Stromboli, Italy, volcanic bomb (September 23, 1963) 2.4±2 Ma
Mt. Etna basalt, Sicily (May 1964) 0.7±0.01 Ma
Medicine Lake Highlands obsidian,
Glass Mountains, California (<500 years old) 12.6±4.5 Ma
Hualalai basalt, Hawaii (AD 1800-1801) 22.8±16.5 Ma
Rangitoto basalt, Auckland, NZ (<800 years old) 0.15±0.47 Ma
Alkali basalt plug, Benue, Nigeria (<30 Ma) 95 Ma
Olivine basalt, Nathan Hills, Victoria Land,
Antarctica (<0.3 Ma) 18.0±0.7 Ma
Anorthoclase in volcanic bomb, Mt Erebus,
Antarctica (1984) 0.64±0.03 Ma
Kilauea basalt, Hawaii (<200 years old) 21±8 Ma
Kilauea basalt, Hawaii (<1,000 years old) 42.9±4.2 Ma; 30.3±3.3 Ma
East Pacific Rise basalt (<1 Ma) 690±7 Ma
Seamount basalt, near East Pacific Rise (<2.5 Ma) 580±10 Ma; 700±150 Ma
East Pacific Rise basalt (<0.6 Ma) 24.2±1.0 Ma
Other studies have also reported measurements of excess 40Ar* in lavas.4 The June 30, 1954 andesite flow from Mt. Ngauruhoe, New Zealand, has yielded "ages" up to 3.5±0.2 Ma due to excess 40Ar*.5 Austin investigated the 1986 dacite lava flow from the post-October 26, 1980, lava dome within the Mount St. Helens crater, which yielded a 0.35±0.05 Ma whole-rock K-Ar model "age" due to excess 40Ar*.6 Concentrates of constituent minerals yielded "ages" up to 2.8±0.6 Ma (pyroxene ultra-concentrate).
Investigators also have found that excess 40Ar* is trapped in the minerals within lava flows.7 Several instances have been reported of phenocrysts with K-Ar "ages" 1-7 millions years greater than that of the whole rock, and one K-Ar "date" on olivine phenocrysts in a recent (<13,000 year old) basalt was greater than 110 Ma.8 Laboratory experiments have tested the solubility of argon in synthetic basalt melts and their constituent minerals, with olivine retaining 0.34 ppm 40Ar*.9 It was concluded that the argon is held primarily in lattice vacancy defects within the minerals.
The obvious conclusion most investigators have reached is that the excess 40Ar* had to be present in the molten lavas when extruded, which then did not completely degas as they cooled, the excess 40Ar* becoming trapped in constituent minerals and the rock fabrics themselves. However, from whence comes the excess 40Ar*, that is, 40Ar which cannot be attributed to atmospheric argon or in situ radioactive decay of 40K? It is not simply "magmatic" argon. Funkhouser and Naughton found that the excess 40Ar* in the 1800-1801 Hualalai flow, Hawaii, resided in fluid and gaseous inclusions in olivine, plagioclase, and pyroxene in ultramafic xenoliths in the basalt, and was sufficient to yield "ages" of 2.6 Ma to 2960 Ma.10 Thus, since the ultramafic xenoliths and the basaltic magmas came from the mantle, the excess 40Ar* must initially reside there, to be transported to the earth's surface in the magmas.
Many recent studies confirm the mantle source of excess 40Ar*. Hawaiian volcanism is typically cited as resulting from a mantle plume, most investigators now conceding that excess 40Ar* in the lavas, including those from the active Loihi and Kilauea volcanoes, is indicative of the mantle source area from which the magmas came. Considerable excess 40Ar* measured in ultramafic mantle xenoliths from Kerguelen Archipelago in the southern Indian Ocean likewise is regarded as the mantle source signature of hotspot volcanism.11 Indeed, data from single vesicles in mid-ocean ridge basalt samples dredged from the North Atlantic suggest the excess 40Ar* in the upper mantle may be almost double previous estimates, that is, almost 150 times more than the atmospheric content (relative to 36Ar).12 Another study on the same samples indicates the upper mantle content of 40Ar* could be even ten times higher.13
Further confirmation comes from diamonds, which form in the mantle and are carried by explosive volcanism into the upper crust and to the surface. When Zashu et al. obtained a K-Ar isochron "age" of 6.0±0.3 Ga for 10 Zaire diamonds, it was obvious excess 40Ar* was responsible, because the diamonds could not be older than the earth itself.14 These same diamonds produced 40Ar/39Ar "age" spectra yielding a ~5.7 Ga isochron.15 It was concluded that the 40Ar is an excess component which has no age significance and is found in tiny inclusions of mantle-derived fluid.
All this evidence clearly shows that excess 40Ar* is ubiquitous in volcanic rocks, and that the excess 40Ar* was inherited from the mantle source areas of the magmas. This is not only true for recent and young volcanics, but for ancient volcanics such as the Middle Proterozoic Cardenas Basalt of eastern Grand Canyon.16 In the mantle, this 40Ar* predominantly represents primordial argon that is not derived from in situ radioactive decay of 40K and thus has no age significance.
In conclusion, the fact that all the primordial argon has not been released yet from the earth's deep interior is consistent with a young Earth. Also, when samples of volcanic rocks are analyzed for K-Ar and Ar-Ar "dating," the investigators can never really be sure therefore that whatever 40Ar* is in the rocks is from in situ radioactive decay of 40K since their formation, or whether some or all of it came from the mantle with the magmas. This could even be the case when the K-Ar and Ar-Ar analyses yield "dates" compatible with other radioisotopic "dating" systems and/or with fossil "dating" based on evolutionary assumptions. Furthermore, there would be no way of knowing, because the 40Ar* from radioactive decay of 40K cannot be distinguished analytically from primordial 40Ar not from radioactive decay, except of course by external assumptions about the ages of the rocks. Thus all K-Ar and Ar-Ar "dates" of volcanic rocks are questionable, as well as fossil "dates" calibrated by them.
Addendum: In paragraph four of the above article, the numbers given for the five historic lava flows reflect the amounts of argon rather than the ages of the rocks listed in Dalrymple’s paper “40Ar/36Ar Analyses of Historic Lava Flows.” Nevertheless, this is no way changes the argument in question. While the apparent ages might be slightly different, they are still excessive because of excess argon and are in the same ballpark as those listed above. So the argument that excess argon produces erroneous apparent ages is still correct.
1 G.B. Dalrymple, The Age of the Earth (1991, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press), p. 91.
2 G.B. Dalrymple, "40Ar/36Ar Analyses of Historic Lava Flows," Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 6 (1969): pp. 47-55.
3 For the original sources of these data, see the references in A.A. Snelling, "The Cause of Anomalous Potassium-Argon 'Ages' for Recent Andesite Flows at Mt. Ngauruhoe, New Zealand, and the Implications for Potassium-Argon 'Dating'," R.E. Walsh, ed., Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Creationism (1998, Pittsburgh, PA, Creation Science Fellowship), pp. 503-525.
6 S.A. Austin, "Excess Argon within Mineral Concentrates from the New Dacite Lava Dome at Mount St Helens Volcano," Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal, 10 (1996): pp. 335-343.
7 A.W. Laughlin, J. Poths, H.A. Healey, S. Reneau and G. WoldeGabriel, "Dating of Quaternary Basalts Using the Cosmogenic 3He and 14C Methods with Implications for Excess 40Ar," Geology, 22 (1994): pp. 135-138. D.B. Patterson, M. Honda and I. McDougall, "Noble Gases in Mafic Phenocrysts and Xenoliths from New Zealand," Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, 58 (1994): pp. 4411-4427. J. Poths, H. Healey and A.W. Laughlin, "Ubiquitous Excess Argon in Very Young Basalts," Geological Society of America Abstracts With Programs, 25 (1993): p. A-462.
8 P.E. Damon, A.W. Laughlin and J.K. Precious, "Problem of Excess Argon-40 in Volcanic Rocks," in Radioactive Dating Methods and Low-Level Counting (1967, Vienna, International Atomic Energy Agency), pp. 463-481.
9 C.L. Broadhurst, M.J. Drake, B.E. Hagee and T.J. Benatowicz, "Solubility and Partitioning of Ar in Anorthite, Diopside, Forsterite, Spinel, and Synthetic Basaltic Liquids," Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, 54 (1990): pp. 299-309. C.L. Broadhurst, M.J. Drake, B.E. Hagee and T.J. Benatowicz, "Solubility and Partitioning of Ne, Ar, Kr and Xe in Minerals and Synthetic Basaltic Melts," Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, 56 (1992): pp. 709-723.
10 J.G. Funkhouser and J.J. Naughton, "Radiogenic Helium and Argon in Ultramafic Inclusions from Hawaii," Journal of Geophysical Research, 73 (1968): pp. 4601-4607.
11 P.J. Valbracht, M. Honda, T. Matsumoto, N. Mattielli, I. McDougall, R. Ragettli and D. Weis, "Helium, Neon and Argon Isotope Systematics in Kerguelen Ultramafic Xenoliths: Implications for Mantle Source Signatures," Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 138 (1996): pp. 29-38.
12 M. Moreira, J. Kunz and C. Allègre, "Rare Gas Systematics in Popping Rock: Isotopic and Elemental Compositions in the Upper Mantle," Science, 279 (1998): pp. 1178-1181.
13 P. Burnard, D. Graham and G. Turner, "Vesicle-Specific Noble Gas Analyses of 'Popping Rock': Implications for Primordial Noble Gases in the Earth," Science, 276 (1997): pp. 568-571.
14 S. Zashu, M. Ozima and O. Nitoh, "K-Ar Isochron Dating of Zaire Cubic Diamonds," Nature, 323 (1986): pp. 710-712.
15 M. Ozima, S. Zashu, Y. Takigami and G. Turner, "Origin of the Anomalous 40Ar-36Ar Age of Zaire Cubic Diamonds: Excess 40Ar in Pristine Mantle Fluids," Nature, 337 (1989): pp. 226-229.
16 S.A. Austin and A.A. Snelling, "Discordant Potassium-Argon Model and Isochron 'Ages' for Cardenas Basalt (Middle Proterozoic) and Associated Diabase of Eastern Grand Canyon, Arizona," in R.E. Walsh, ed., Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Creationism (1998, Pittsburgh, PA, Creation Science Fellowship), pp. 35-51.
Note: "Ma" represents a million years (Mega-annum); "Ga" represents a billion years (Giga-annum).
* At time of publication, Dr. Snelling was Associate Professor of Geology at ICR.
Cite this article: Snelling, A. A. 1999. "Excess Argon": The "Archilles' Heel" of Potassium-Argon and Argon-Argon "Dating" of Volcanic Rocks. Acts & Facts. 28 (1).