Cosmogenic nuclides (or cosmogenic isotopes) are rare nuclides (isotopes) created when a high-energy cosmic ray interacts with the nucleus of an in situ Solar System atom, causing nucleons (protons and neutrons) to be expelled from the atom (see cosmic ray spallation). These nuclides are produced within Earth materials such as rocks or soil, in Earth's atmosphere, and in extraterrestrial items such as meteoroids. By measuring cosmogenic nuclides, scientists are able to gain insight into a range of geological and astronomical processes. There are both radioactive and stable cosmogenic nuclides. Some of these radionuclides are tritium, carbon-14 and phosphorus-32.

Certain light (low atomic number) primordial nuclides (isotopes of lithium, beryllium and boron) are thought to have been created not only during the Big Bang, but also (and perhaps primarily) to have been made after the Big Bang, but before the condensation of the Solar System, by the process of cosmic ray spallation on interstellar gas and dust. This explains their higher abundance in cosmic dust as compared with their abundances on Earth. This also explains the overabundance of the early transition metals just before iron in the periodic table – the cosmic-ray spallation of iron produces scandium through chromium on the one hand and helium through boron on the other.[1] However, the arbitrary defining qualification for cosmogenic nuclides of being formed "in situ in the Solar System" (meaning inside an already-aggregated piece of the Solar System) prevents primordial nuclides formed by cosmic ray spallation before the formation of the Solar System from being termed "cosmogenic nuclides"—even though the mechanism for their formation is exactly the same. These same nuclides still arrive on Earth in small amounts in cosmic rays, and are formed in meteoroids, in the atmosphere, on Earth, "cosmogenically". However, beryllium (all of it stable beryllium-9) is present[2] primordially in the Solar System in much larger amounts, having existed prior to the condensation of the Solar System, and thus present in the materials from which the Solar System formed.

To make the distinction in another fashion, the timing of their formation determines which subset of cosmic ray spallation-produced nuclides are termed primordial or cosmogenic (a nuclide cannot belong to both classes). By convention, certain stable nuclides of lithium, beryllium, and boron are thought to have been produced by cosmic ray spallation in the period of time between the Big Bang and the Solar System's formation (thus making these primordial nuclides, by definition) are not termed "cosmogenic", even though they were formed by the same process as the cosmogenic nuclides (although at an earlier time).[1][3] The primordial nuclide beryllium-9, the only stable beryllium isotope, is an example of this type of nuclide.

In contrast, even though the radioactive isotopes beryllium-7 and beryllium-10 fall into this series of three light elements (lithium, beryllium, boron) formed mostly by cosmic ray spallation nucleosynthesis, both of these nuclides have half lives too short (53 days and ca. 1.4 million years, resp.) for them to have been formed before the formation of the Solar System, and thus they cannot be primordial nuclides. Since the cosmic ray spallation route is the only possible source of beryllium-7 and beryllium-10 occurrence naturally in the environment, they are therefore cosmogenic.

Cosmogenic nuclides

Here is a list of radioisotopes formed by the action of cosmic rays; the list also contains the production mode of the isotope.[4] Most cosmogenic nuclides are formed in the atmosphere, but some are formed in situ in soil and rock exposed to cosmic rays, notably calcium-41 in the table below.

Isotopes formed by the action of cosmic rays
Isotope Mode of formation half life
3H (tritium) 14N(n,12C)T 12.3 y
7Be Spallation (N and O) 53.2 d
10Be Spallation (N and O) 1,387,000 y
11C Spallation (N and O) 20.3 min
14C 14N(n,p)14C 5,730 y
18F 18O(p,n)18F and Spallation (Ar) 110 min
22Na Spallation (Ar) 2.6 y
24Na Spallation (Ar) 15 h
28Mg Spallation (Ar) 20.9 h
26Al Spallation (Ar) 717,000 y
31Si Spallation (Ar) 157 min
32Si Spallation (Ar) 153 y
32P Spallation (Ar) 14.3 d
33P Spallation (Ar) 25.3 d
34mCl Spallation (Ar) 34 min
35S Spallation (Ar) 87.5 d
36Cl 35Cl (n,γ)36Cl 301,000 y
37Ar 37Cl (p,n)37Ar 35 d
38Cl Spallation (Ar) 37 min
39Ar 40Ar (n,2n)39Ar 269 y
39Cl 40Ar (n,np)39Cl & spallation (Ar) 56 min
41Ar 40Ar (n,γ)41Ar 110 min
41Ca 40Ca (n,γ)41Ca 102,000 y
81Kr 80Kr (n,γ) 81Kr 229,000 y
129I Spallation (Xe) 15,700,000 y

Applications in geology listed by isotope

Commonly measured long lived cosmogenic isotopes
element mass half-life (years) typical application
beryllium 10 1,387,000 exposure dating of rocks, soils, ice cores
aluminium 26 720,000 exposure dating of rocks, sediment
chlorine 36 308,000 exposure dating of rocks, groundwater tracer
calcium 41 103,000 exposure dating of carbonate rocks
iodine 129 15,700,000 groundwater tracer
carbon 14 5730 radiocarbon dating
sulfur 35 0.24 water residence times
sodium 22 2.6 water residence times
tritium 3 12.32 water residence times
argon 39 269 groundwater tracer
krypton 81 229,000 groundwater tracer

Use in geochronology

As seen in the table above, there are a wide variety of useful cosmogenic nuclides which can be measured in soil, rocks, groundwater, and the atmosphere.[5] These nuclides all share the common feature of being absent in the host material at the time of formation. These nuclides are chemically distinct and fall into two categories. The nuclides of interest are either noble gases which due to their inert behavior are inherently not trapped in a crystallized mineral or has a short enough half-life such that it has decayed since nucleosynthesis, but a long enough half-life such that it has built up measurable concentrations. The former includes measuring abundances of 81Kr and 39Ar whereas the latter includes measuring abundances of 10Be, 14C, and 26Al.

Three types of cosmic-ray reactions can occur once a cosmic ray strikes matter which in turn produce the measured cosmogenic nuclides.[6]

Corrections for cosmic-ray fluxes

Since the Earth bulges at the equator and mountains and deep oceanic trenches allow for deviations of several kilometers relative to a uniformly smooth spheroid, cosmic rays bombard the Earth's surface unevenly based on the latitude and altitude. Thus, many geographic and geologic considerations must be understood in order for cosmic-ray flux to be accurately determined. Atmospheric pressure, for example, which varies with altitude, can change the production rate of nuclides within minerals by a factor of 30 between sea level and the top of a 5 km high mountain. Even variations in the slope of the ground can affect how far high-energy muons can penetrate the subsurface.[8] Geomagnetic field strength which varies over time affects the production rate of cosmogenic nuclides though some models assume variations of the field strength are averaged out over geologic time and are not always considered.


  1. ^ a b Greenwood, Norman N.; Earnshaw, Alan (1997). Chemistry of the Elements (2nd ed.). Butterworth-Heinemann. p. 13–15. ISBN 978-0-08-037941-8.
  2. ^ "Beryllium | Properties, Uses, & Facts | Britannica". 2023-09-17. Retrieved 2023-10-19.
  3. ^ Sapphire Lally (Jul 24, 2021). "How is gold made? The mysterious cosmic origins of heavy elements". New Scientist.
  4. ^ SCOPE 50 - Radioecology after Chernobyl Archived 2014-05-13 at the Wayback Machine, the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE), 1993. See table 1.9 in Section
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  6. ^ Lal, D.; Peters, B. (1967). "Cosmic Ray Produced Radioactivity on the Earth". Kosmische Strahlung II / Cosmic Rays II. Handbuch der Physik / Encyclopedia of Physics. Vol. 9 / 46 / 2. pp. 551–612. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-46079-1_7. ISBN 978-3-642-46081-4.
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  8. ^ Dunne, Jeff; Elmore, David; Muzikar, Paul (1 February 1999). "Scaling factors for the rates of production of cosmogenic nuclides for geometric shielding and attenuation at depth on sloped surfaces". Geomorphology. 27 (1): 3–11. Bibcode:1999Geomo..27....3D. doi:10.1016/S0169-555X(98)00086-5.