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How Accurate is Carbon Dating?

An isotope is a form of an element with a certain number of neutrons, which are the subatomic particles found in the nucleus of an atom that have no charge. While the number of protons and electrons in an atom determine what element it is, the number of neutrons can vary widely between different atoms of the same element.

Nearly 99 percent of all carbon on Earth is Carbon, meaning each atom has 12 neutrons in its nucleus. The shirt you're wearing, the carbon dioxide you inhale and the animals and plants you eat are all formed mostly of Carbon Carbon is a stable isotope, meaning its amount in any material remains the same year-after-year, century-after-century. Libby's groundbreaking radiocarbon dating technique instead looked at a much more rare isotope of carbon: 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. Animals, in turn, consume this carbon when they eat plants, and the carbon spreads through the food cycle.


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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.

If only there were such an easy fix for climate change

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. 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.

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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.

They attempted to account for this by setting as a standard year for the ratio of C to C, and measuring subsequent findings against that.

Why Carbon Dating Might Be in Danger

In short, the answer is… sometimes. Sometimes carbon dating will agree with other evolutionary methods of age estimation, which is great. Most concerning, though, is when the carbon dating directly opposes or contradicts other estimates. At this point, the carbon dating data is simply disregarded. It has been summed up most succinctly in the words of American neuroscience Professor Bruce Brew: If it does not entirely contradict them, we put it in a footnote.

Is Carbon Dating Accurate?

And if it is completely out of date, we just drop it. For example, recently science teams at the British Antarctic Survey and Reading University unearthed the discovery that samples of moss could be brought back to life after being frozen in ice. That carbon dating deemed the moss to have been frozen for over 1, years. Now, if this carbon dating agrees with other evolutionary methods of determining age, the team could have a real discovery on their hands.

Taken alone, however, the carbon dating is unreliable at best, and at worst, downright inaccurate.


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Is Carbon Dating Accurate?

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