How does carbon dating tell us how old a fossil is

Atmospheric 14 C varies over decades due to the sunspot cycle, and over millennia due to changes in the earth's magnetic field. On a shorter timescale, humans also affect the amount of atmospheric 14 C through combustion of fossil fuels and above-ground testing of the largely defensive weapon of the thermonuclear bomb.

Therefore dates must be calibrated based on 14 C levels in samples of known ages. Radiometric dating in general, of course, poses a huge problem for people who believe that the universe is odd years old. A favorite tactic of Young-Earthers involves citing studies which show trace amounts of 14 C in coal or diamond samples, which — being millions of years old — should have no original atmospheric 14 C left. Recent studies, however, show that 14 C can form underground.

The decay of uranium and thorium, among other isotopes, produces radiation which can create 14 C from 12 C. This fact is extremely inconvenient to young-earthers, and creationist literature, accordingly, usually does not mention it. Carbon-dating skeptics deniers also claim that the inconsistency of 14 C levels in the atmosphere over the past 60, years creates causes a validity issue.

However, calibration of carbon levels using tree rings and other sources keep such effects to an extremely small level. Ironically, given how supposedly useless carbon dating is claimed to be, Creation Ministries International rests part of their " Evidences" on carbon dating being a useful method for within several thousand years. This of course contradicts claims that the Great Flood messed up how carbon was deposited, destroying their own argument.

Less astute creationists often conflate carbon dating with other forms of radiometric dating, attempting to "disprove" the true age of dinosaur fossils by "refuting" carbon dating. This is meaningless - paleontologists do not use carbon dating to assess dinosaur fossils; dinosaurs became extinct 66 million years ago, more than a thousand times farther back than carbon dating can be used. The ratio of carbon to carbon at the moment of death is the same as every other living thing, but the carbon decays and is not replaced.

The carbon decays with its half-life of 5, years, while the amount of carbon remains constant in the sample. By looking at the ratio of carbon to carbon in the sample and comparing it to the ratio in a living organism, it is possible to determine the age of a formerly living thing fairly precisely. So, if you had a fossil that had 10 percent carbon compared to a living sample, then that fossil would be:.

Because the half-life of carbon is 5, years, it is only reliable for dating objects up to about 60, years old. For accelerator mass spectrometry , solid graphite targets are the most common, although gaseous CO 2 can also be used. The quantity of material needed for testing depends on the sample type and the technology being used. There are two types of testing technology: For beta counters, a sample weighing at least 10 grams 0.

For decades after Libby performed the first radiocarbon dating experiments, the only way to measure the 14 C in a sample was to detect the radioactive decay of individual carbon atoms. Libby's first detector was a Geiger counter of his own design. He converted the carbon in his sample to lamp black soot and coated the inner surface of a cylinder with it.

This cylinder was inserted into the counter in such a way that the counting wire was inside the sample cylinder, in order that there should be no material between the sample and the wire. Libby's method was soon superseded by gas proportional counters , which were less affected by bomb carbon the additional 14 C created by nuclear weapons testing. These counters record bursts of ionization caused by the beta particles emitted by the decaying 14 C atoms; the bursts are proportional to the energy of the particle, so other sources of ionization, such as background radiation, can be identified and ignored.

The counters are surrounded by lead or steel shielding, to eliminate background radiation and to reduce the incidence of cosmic rays. In addition, anticoincidence detectors are used; these record events outside the counter, and any event recorded simultaneously both inside and outside the counter is regarded as an extraneous event and ignored.

The other common technology used for measuring 14 C activity is liquid scintillation counting, which was invented in , but which had to wait until the early s, when efficient methods of benzene synthesis were developed, to become competitive with gas counting; after liquid counters became the more common technology choice for newly constructed dating laboratories. The counters work by detecting flashes of light caused by the beta particles emitted by 14 C as they interact with a fluorescing agent added to the benzene.

Relative Dating

Like gas counters, liquid scintillation counters require shielding and anticoincidence counters. For both the gas proportional counter and liquid scintillation counter, what is measured is the number of beta particles detected in a given time period.

This provides a value for the background radiation, which must be subtracted from the measured activity of the sample being dated to get the activity attributable solely to that sample's 14 C. In addition, a sample with a standard activity is measured, to provide a baseline for comparison. The ions are accelerated and passed through a stripper, which removes several electrons so that the ions emerge with a positive charge.

A particle detector then records the number of ions detected in the 14 C stream, but since the volume of 12 C and 13 C , needed for calibration is too great for individual ion detection, counts are determined by measuring the electric current created in a Faraday cup. Any 14 C signal from the machine background blank is likely to be caused either by beams of ions that have not followed the expected path inside the detector, or by carbon hydrides such as 12 CH 2 or 13 CH.

A 14 C signal from the process blank measures the amount of contamination introduced during the preparation of the sample. These measurements are used in the subsequent calculation of the age of the sample. The calculations to be performed on the measurements taken depend on the technology used, since beta counters measure the sample's radioactivity whereas AMS determines the ratio of the three different carbon isotopes in the sample.

To determine the age of a sample whose activity has been measured by beta counting, the ratio of its activity to the activity of the standard must be found. To determine this, a blank sample of old, or dead, carbon is measured, and a sample of known activity is measured.

D: Carbon Dating and Estimating Fossil Age - Biology LibreTexts

The additional samples allow errors such as background radiation and systematic errors in the laboratory setup to be detected and corrected for. The results from AMS testing are in the form of ratios of 12 C , 13 C , and 14 C , which are used to calculate Fm, the "fraction modern". Both beta counting and AMS results have to be corrected for fractionation. The calculation uses 8,, the mean-life derived from Libby's half-life of 5, years, not 8,, the mean-life derived from the more accurate modern value of 5, years.

The reliability of the results can be improved by lengthening the testing time. Radiocarbon dating is generally limited to dating samples no more than 50, years old, as samples older than that have insufficient 14 C to be measurable. Older dates have been obtained by using special sample preparation techniques, large samples, and very long measurement times.

These techniques can allow measurement of dates up to 60, and in some cases up to 75, years before the present. This was demonstrated in by an experiment run by the British Museum radiocarbon laboratory, in which weekly measurements were taken on the same sample for six months. The measurements included one with a range from about to about years ago, and another with a range from about to about Errors in procedure can also lead to errors in the results.

The calculations given above produce dates in radiocarbon years: To produce a curve that can be used to relate calendar years to radiocarbon years, a sequence of securely dated samples is needed which can be tested to determine their radiocarbon age. The study of tree rings led to the first such sequence: These factors affect all trees in an area, so examining tree-ring sequences from old wood allows the identification of overlapping sequences.

In this way, an uninterrupted sequence of tree rings can be extended far into the past. The first such published sequence, based on bristlecone pine tree rings, was created by Wesley Ferguson. Suess said he drew the line showing the wiggles by "cosmic schwung ", by which he meant that the variations were caused by extraterrestrial forces. It was unclear for some time whether the wiggles were real or not, but they are now well-established. A calibration curve is used by taking the radiocarbon date reported by a laboratory, and reading across from that date on the vertical axis of the graph.

The point where this horizontal line intersects the curve will give the calendar age of the sample on the horizontal axis. This is the reverse of the way the curve is constructed: Over the next thirty years many calibration curves were published using a variety of methods and statistical approaches.

The improvements to these curves are based on new data gathered from tree rings, varves , coral , plant macrofossils , speleothems , and foraminifera. The INTCAL13 data includes separate curves for the northern and southern hemispheres, as they differ systematically because of the hemisphere effect. The southern curve SHCAL13 is based on independent data where possible, and derived from the northern curve by adding the average offset for the southern hemisphere where no direct data was available.

The sequence can be compared to the calibration curve and the best match to the sequence established. Bayesian statistical techniques can be applied when there are several radiocarbon dates to be calibrated.

Carbon dating

For example, if a series of radiocarbon dates is taken from different levels in a stratigraphic sequence, Bayesian analysis can be used to evaluate dates which are outliers, and can calculate improved probability distributions, based on the prior information that the sequence should be ordered in time. Several formats for citing radiocarbon results have been used since the first samples were dated. As of , the standard format required by the journal Radiocarbon is as follows.

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For example, the uncalibrated date "UtC Related forms are sometimes used: Calibrated dates should also identify any programs, such as OxCal, used to perform the calibration. A key concept in interpreting radiocarbon dates is archaeological association: It frequently happens that a sample for radiocarbon dating can be taken directly from the object of interest, but there are also many cases where this is not possible. Metal grave goods, for example, cannot be radiocarbon dated, but they may be found in a grave with a coffin, charcoal, or other material which can be assumed to have been deposited at the same time.

In these cases a date for the coffin or charcoal is indicative of the date of deposition of the grave goods, because of the direct functional relationship between the two. There are also cases where there is no functional relationship, but the association is reasonably strong: Contamination is of particular concern when dating very old material obtained from archaeological excavations and great care is needed in the specimen selection and preparation.

In , Thomas Higham and co-workers suggested that many of the dates published for Neanderthal artefacts are too recent because of contamination by "young carbon". As a tree grows, only the outermost tree ring exchanges carbon with its environment, so the age measured for a wood sample depends on where the sample is taken from. This means that radiocarbon dates on wood samples can be older than the date at which the tree was felled. In addition, if a piece of wood is used for multiple purposes, there may be a significant delay between the felling of the tree and the final use in the context in which it is found.

Another example is driftwood, which may be used as construction material. It is not always possible to recognize re-use. Other materials can present the same problem: A separate issue, related to re-use, is that of lengthy use, or delayed deposition. For example, a wooden object that remains in use for a lengthy period will have an apparent age greater than the actual age of the context in which it is deposited.

Archaeology is not the only field to make use of radiocarbon dating. The ability to date minute samples using AMS has meant that palaeobotanists and palaeoclimatologists can use radiocarbon dating on pollen samples.

How Do We Know How Old Everything Is?

Radiocarbon dates can also be used in geology, sedimentology, and lake studies, for example. Dates on organic material recovered from strata of interest can be used to correlate strata in different locations that appear to be similar on geological grounds.

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  • Dating material from one location gives date information about the other location, and the dates are also used to place strata in the overall geological timeline. The Pleistocene is a geological epoch that began about 2.