Can radiocarbon dating be trusted

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  2. Answers to Creationist Attacks on Carbon Dating | NCSE
  3. Answers to Creationist Attacks on Carbon-14 Dating
  4. Thanks to Fossil Fuels, Carbon Dating Is in Jeopardy. One Scientist May Have an Easy Fix
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Over time, however, discrepancies began to appear between the known chronology for the oldest Egyptian dynasties and the radiocarbon dates of Egyptian artefacts.

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The question was resolved by the study of tree rings: Coal and oil began to be burned in large quantities during the 19th century. Dating an object from the early 20th century hence gives an apparent date older than the true date. For the same reason, 14 C concentrations in the neighbourhood of large cities are lower than the atmospheric average. This fossil fuel effect also known as the Suess effect, after Hans Suess, who first reported it in would only amount to a reduction of 0.

A much larger effect comes from above-ground nuclear testing, which released large numbers of neutrons and created 14 C. From about until , when atmospheric nuclear testing was banned, it is estimated that several tonnes of 14 C were created. The level has since dropped, as this bomb pulse or "bomb carbon" as it is sometimes called percolates into the rest of the reservoir. Photosynthesis is the primary process by which carbon moves from the atmosphere into living things.

In photosynthetic pathways 12 C is absorbed slightly more easily than 13 C , which in turn is more easily absorbed than 14 C. This effect is known as isotopic fractionation.

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At higher temperatures, CO 2 has poor solubility in water, which means there is less CO 2 available for the photosynthetic reactions. The enrichment of bone 13 C also implies that excreted material is depleted in 13 C relative to the diet. The carbon exchange between atmospheric CO 2 and carbonate at the ocean surface is also subject to fractionation, with 14 C in the atmosphere more likely than 12 C to dissolve in the ocean. This increase in 14 C concentration almost exactly cancels out the decrease caused by the upwelling of water containing old, and hence 14 C depleted, carbon from the deep ocean, so that direct measurements of 14 C radiation are similar to measurements for the rest of the biosphere.

Correcting for isotopic fractionation, as is done for all radiocarbon dates to allow comparison between results from different parts of the biosphere, gives an apparent age of about years for ocean surface water. The CO 2 in the atmosphere transfers to the ocean by dissolving in the surface water as carbonate and bicarbonate ions; at the same time the carbonate ions in the water are returning to the air as CO 2. The deepest parts of the ocean mix very slowly with the surface waters, and the mixing is uneven. The main mechanism that brings deep water to the surface is upwelling, which is more common in regions closer to the equator.

Upwelling is also influenced by factors such as the topography of the local ocean bottom and coastlines, the climate, and wind patterns. Overall, the mixing of deep and surface waters takes far longer than the mixing of atmospheric CO 2 with the surface waters, and as a result water from some deep ocean areas has an apparent radiocarbon age of several thousand years.

Upwelling mixes this "old" water with the surface water, giving the surface water an apparent age of about several hundred years after correcting for fractionation. The northern and southern hemispheres have atmospheric circulation systems that are sufficiently independent of each other that there is a noticeable time lag in mixing between the two.

Answers to Creationist Attacks on Carbon Dating | NCSE

Since the surface ocean is depleted in 14 C because of the marine effect, 14 C is removed from the southern atmosphere more quickly than in the north. For example, rivers that pass over limestone , which is mostly composed of calcium carbonate , will acquire carbonate ions. Similarly, groundwater can contain carbon derived from the rocks through which it has passed. Volcanic eruptions eject large amounts of carbon into the air. Dormant volcanoes can also emit aged carbon. Any addition of carbon to a sample of a different age will cause the measured date to be inaccurate.

Contamination with modern carbon causes a sample to appear to be younger than it really is: Samples for dating need to be converted into a form suitable for measuring the 14 C content; this can mean conversion to gaseous, liquid, or solid form, depending on the measurement technique to be used. Before this can be done, the sample must be treated to remove any contamination and any unwanted constituents. Particularly for older samples, it may be useful to enrich the amount of 14 C in the sample before testing. This can be done with a thermal diffusion column.

Once contamination has been removed, samples must be converted to a form suitable for the measuring technology to be used.

Answers to Creationist Attacks on Carbon-14 Dating

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. 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.

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

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.


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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. 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.

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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. You are commenting using your WordPress. You are commenting using your Twitter account. You are commenting using your Facebook account.

Notify me of new comments via email. Notify me of new posts via email. Available online at http: Christopher Bronk Ramsey et al. Email Facebook Twitter Pinterest Print. Leave a Reply Cancel reply Enter your comment here Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Email required Address never made public. Quantum Mechanics and the Nature of Reality.

Can we trust radiocarbon dating? After all, it makes the same range of assumptions as other radiometric dating methods, and then some. Other methods benefit from internal checks or duplications, which in the case of radiocarbon dating are generally absent. There are numerous cases where it appears to give absurdly old ages for young material, while apparent ages of a few tens of thousands of years are regularly reported for material known on other evidence to be millions of years old.

So can the Young Earth creationist 1 objections be rebutted, and if so how? The principle of radiometric dating is simple. For example, after one half-life we will have half the initial amount of that substance, after two half-lives only a quarter, after three half-lives just an eighth and so on, and there is a simple equation to deal with all amounts in between.

Radioactive decay of 14C Science Learning Hub. As for how we know how much of the substance there was to start with, we can in most cases find that out easily enough by adding together the amount still there and the amount of the daughter substance into which it decays. For example, the most long-lived isotope of uranium, uranium decays to give lead, so that adding the number of atoms of lead to the number of atoms of uranium still present gives us the number of atoms of uranium that were there originally.

Historically, radiometric dating of any material was said to involve three assumptions. The first of these was that decay rates were constant, so that the half-life of any isotope in the material was same today as it had been since the material was originally formed. The second was that results were not distorted by daughter isotopes initially present. In the example given above, for instance, if the material had contained any lead when it first formed, that would lead us to overestimate the amount of uranium that had decayed, and hence the age of the material. The third was that materials had not migrated.

If the lead formed had been able to diffuse away, our estimated age would be too young. Young Earth advocates make great play of criticising these assumptions, quoting papers a hundred years old in order to do so. George Gamow R in photo of W. However, for most radiometric dating methods , none of this should concern us, provided the material is competently examined and the results interpreted using up-to-date techniques. George Gamow showed back in that decay rates can be predicted from the time-dependent Schroedinger equation, and for any radioactive isotope are fixed by the properties of the nucleus, the fundamental constants of nature, and the laws of quantum mechanics.

These we know, from analysis of light coming to us from distant galaxies, to have been unchanged for many billions of years, and if they had been different, so would the laws of physics and chemistry, and the material in question would never have been able to form in the first place. The second and third objections are dealt with by a number of techniques. In what are called isochron methods , isotopes not involved in dating such as lead are used as internal checks. Some minerals, such as zircons, do not accept lead into their crystal lattice when they form, so any present must have been formed in place by radioactive decay.

Modern methods involve sampling from extremely small areas, and any effects of material migration would show up as inconsistencies. Moreover, minerals can generally be dated using more than one radiometric technique. It is now present only to the extent of 0. Radiocarbon dating is a little bit different. All other radioactive isotopes were present from the formation of the Earth, and radiometric dating tells us the time since they were embedded in the material under examination. Carbon, however, 14C for short , has a half-life of a mere years, and the only reason that there is any around at all, is that it is being continually regenerated in the upper atmosphere, by the action of cosmic rays on ordinary nitrogen nitrogen The 14C is then mixed, as CO2, into the atmosphere and hence into the general pool of circulating carbon in the atmosphere and biosphere.

Plants exchange carbon with this pool for as long as they are alive. However, as soon as the plant material is removed from the circulating pool by death, or by incorporation into metabolically inactive material such as the heartwood of trees, the amount of 14C begins to fall by radioactive decay, as it changes back into nitrogen.

So the radioactive age tells you the length of time since once-living material was withdrawn from the pool. For animal-derived material, the age refers to the plant material from which it was ultimately derived, but this is unlikely to make any serious difference. Care is necessary, however, to ensure that the carbon in the sample really was derived from the general pool.

Near limestone caves, for example, recent material will appear ancient if part of the carbon comes from limestone, calcium carbonate, laid down millions of years ago. All of this has been known for decades. Radiocarbon dating also depends on estimates of the rate of production at the time that a sample was formed, compared to the current 3 rate of production.

Moreover, since the daughter, nitrogen, is ubiquitous, we have no independent way of assessing how much 14C was initially present, and other refinements such as the isochron method and cross-comparisons are not available. Spoiler and I think few readers will be surprised by this , yes. The case is laid out in a recent paper by Gregg Davidson and my friend Ken Wolgemuth in Perspectives in Science and Christian Faith , 70 2 , 75, June , abstract available here the full text will be freely downloadable from January , of which Ken has kindly sent me a copy.

What follows is derived mainly from this paper, with a few observations of my own blended in. Why this paper and why this journal, when I have no faith, Christian or otherwise? Young Earth creationism is motivated by fears that one cannot be a good Christian unless one accepts a biblical literalist chronology, according to which the Earth is only some 6, years old. By choosing a refutation of Young Earth creationism whose authors are publicly committed to Christianity, I hope to show that these fears are baseless.

Why Carbon Dating Might Be in Danger

Secondly, this is the best exposition I have ever seen of the scientific case for accepting the validity of the method.