The extensive use of fossil fuels is not only endangering the climate, but also the scientific method of radiocarbon dating widely used for determining the age of a wide array of artifacts.
The world’s industry and economy still uses fossil fuels to a large extent. Some economic sectors simply can’t do without them. While green and cleaner alternative energy sources are receiving growing attention, a full transition from fossil fuels to green energy sources is still a distant reality.
Yet fossil fuels emissions are poisoning the atmosphere, pressing the gas pedal on climate change and putting our planet’s future in danger. A new study comes to add to the negative effects of fossil fuel emissions. That is the effect on radiocarbon dating.
This scientific method of determining the age of artifacts was developed in the 1940’s. It relies on measuring the levels of carbon-14, which is carbon’s radioactive form. Released in the atmosphere and then absorbed by plants in the photosynthesis process, carbon-14 is crucial to determining the age of any organic compound by comparing carbon-14 levels to carbon levels.
Fossil fuel emissions are diluting the levels of carbon-14 in the atmosphere. Since the industrial revolution, this effect is being felt increasingly often. This impacts the radioactive carbon dating technique as its accuracy is being lost.
Doctor Heather Graven, author of the study regarding radioactive carbon dating technique stated:
“As carbon-14 decays over time, the fraction will decrease so that’s how we use it for dating. But we can also change this ratio of radioactive carbon to total carbon, if we are adding non-radioactive carbon and that’s what’s happening with fossil fuels, we get this dilution effect”.
The study analyzed possible scenarios of fossil fuel carbon emissions in the next 100 years timeframe. The results indicated that by 2020 non-radioactive carbon concentrations could severely start affecting the carbon dating technique.
According to the findings, a new product that would undergo radioactive carbon dating would have the same ratio of radioactive carbon as an artefact that owes the low ratio to radioactive carbon decay.
If in 2050 a team of scientists looked at a t-shirt in order to date it by measuring the ratio of radioactive carbon, it would probably results that it had the same age as William the Conqueror’s robe manufactured 1,000 years before.
The accuracy of the radioactive carbon dating technique depends greatly on the fossil fuel carbon emissions increase or decrease.
The study is featuring in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.
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