Answers to Creationist Attacks on Carbon Dating | NCSE
Unlike Carbon, this isotope of carbon is unstable, and its atoms decay into an isotope of nitrogen over a period of thousands of years. New Carbon is produced at a steady rate in Earth's upper atmosphere, however, as the Sun's rays strike nitrogen atoms. Radiocarbon dating exploits this contrast between a stable and unstable carbon isotope. During its lifetime, a plant is constantly taking in carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis.
How Accurate is Carbon Dating?
Animals, in turn, consume this carbon when they eat plants, and the carbon spreads through the food cycle. This carbon comprises a steady ratio of Carbon and Carbon When these plants and animals die, they cease taking in carbon. From that point forward, the amount of Carbon in materials left over from the plant or animal will decrease over time, while the amount of Carbon will remain unchanged. To radiocarbon date an organic material, a scientist can measure the ratio of remaining Carbon to the unchanged Carbon to see how long it has been since the material's source died.
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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. Unfortunately, humans are on the verge of messing things up.
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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. 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.
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. Two distinct sediment layers have formed in the lake every summer and winter over tens of thousands of years. The researchers collected roughly metre core samples from the lake and painstakingly counted the layers to come up with a direct record stretching back 52, years.
Take the extinction of Neanderthals, which occurred in western Europe less than 30, years ago. Archaeologists vehemently disagree over the effects changing climate and competition from recently arriving humans had on the Neanderthals' demise.
Thanks to Fossil Fuels, Carbon Dating Is in Jeopardy. One Scientist May Have an Easy Fix
The more accurate carbon clock should yield better dates for any overlap of humans and Neanderthals, as well as for determining how climate changes influenced the extinction of Neanderthals. She will lead efforts to combine the Lake Suigetsu measurements with marine and cave records to come up with a new standard for carbon dating.
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This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on October 18, Ewen Callaway trabaja para la revista Nature. From Nature magazine The carbon clock is getting reset. Ewen Callaway Ewen Callaway trabaja para la revista Nature. Sign up for our email newsletter.