What are the problems with radiocarbon dating

In their Perspective “The boon and Bane of radiocarbon dating” (21 Jan., p. ), T. P. Guilderson et al. raise some important issues in radiocarbon (14C) dating.
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Often, archaeologists use graves and plant remains to date sites. Since its conception by Willard Libby in , it has been invaluable to the discipline. In fact, many important archaeological artifacts have been dated using this method including some of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Shroud of Turin. Though radiocarbon dating is startlingly accurate for the most part, it has a few sizable flaws. The technology uses a series of mathematical calculations—the most recognizable of which is known as half-life—to estimate the age the organism stopped ingesting the isotope.

Unfortunately, the amount of Carbon in the atmosphere has not been steady throughout history. In fact, it has fluctuated a great deal over the years. This variation is caused by both natural processes and human activity.

Humans began making an impact during the Industrial Revolution. The isotope decreased by a small fraction due to the combustion of fossil fuels, among other factors. The answer to the problem of fluctuating amounts of this important isotope is calibration. Standard calibration curves are now used for more accurate readings.

Thanks to Fossil Fuels, Carbon Dating Is in Jeopardy. One Scientist May Have an Easy Fix

These curves indicate the changes in Carbon throughout the years and modifies the end result of the tests to reflect that. Though the calibrated date is more precise, many scholars still use the uncalibrated date in order to keep chronologies consistent in academic communities. Advancing technology has allowed radiocarbon dating to become accurate to within just a few decades in many cases. Carbon dating is a brilliant way for archaeologists to take advantage of the natural ways that atoms decay.

Creation v. Evolution: How Carbon Dating Works

Unfortunately, humans are on the verge of messing things up. The slow, steady process of Carbon creation in the upper atmosphere has been dwarfed in the past centuries by humans spewing carbon from fossil fuels into the air. Since fossil fuels are millions of years old, they no longer contain any measurable amount of Carbon Thus, as millions of tons of Carbon are pushed into the atmosphere, the steady ratio of these two isotopes is being disrupted. In a study published last year , Imperial College London physicist Heather Graven pointed out how these extra carbon emissions will skew radiocarbon dating.

Carbon Dating Gets a Reset - Scientific American

Although Carbon comprises just over 1 percent of Earth's atmosphere, plants take up its larger, heavier atoms at a much lower rate than Carbon during photosynthesis. Thus Carbon is found in very low levels in the fossil fuels produced from plants and the animals that eat them.


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In other words, burning these fossil fuels dwarfs the atmospheric levels of Carbon, too. By measuring whether these levels of Carbon are skewed in an object being radiocarbon dated, future scientists would be able to then know if the object's levels of Carbon have been skewed by fossil fuel emissions. Researchers could then disregard the date and try other methods of dating the object.

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Queen's University paleoclimatologist Paula Reimer points out that measuring Carbon will often not be necessary, since archaeologists can usually use the sedimentary layer in which an object was found to double-check its age. Subscribe or Give a Gift. Brazil Dissolves Its Culture Ministry.

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