The problem with radiocarbon dating
The field of radiocarbon dating has become a technical one far removed from the naive simplicity which characterized its initial introduction by Libby in the late 's. It is, therefore, not surprising that many misconceptions about what radiocarbon can or cannot do and what it has or has not shown are prevalent among creationists and evolutionists - lay people as well as scientists not directly involved in this field. In the following article, some of the most common misunderstandings regarding radiocarbon dating are addressed, and corrective, up-to-date scientific creationist thought is provided where appropriate. MYTH 1. Radiocarbon is used to date the age of rocks, which enables scientists to date the age of the earth. Radiocarbon is not used to date the age of rocks or to determine the age of the earth.
How Accurate is Carbon Dating?
Radiocarbon dating also referred to as carbon dating or carbon dating is a method for determining the age of an object containing organic material by using the properties of radiocarbon , a radioactive isotope of carbon. The method was developed in the late s by Willard Libby , who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in It is based on the fact that radiocarbon 14 C is constantly being created in the atmosphere by the interaction of cosmic rays with atmospheric nitrogen. The resulting 14 C combines with atmospheric oxygen to form radioactive carbon dioxide , which is incorporated into plants by photosynthesis ; animals then acquire 14 C by eating the plants.
When the animal or plant dies, it stops exchanging carbon with its environment, and from that point onwards the amount of 14 C it contains begins to decrease as the 14 C undergoes radioactive decay. Measuring the amount of 14 C in a sample from a dead plant or animal such as a piece of wood or a fragment of bone provides information that can be used to calculate when the animal or plant died. The older a sample is, the less 14 C there is to be detected, and because the half-life of 14 C the period of time after which half of a given sample will have decayed is about 5, years, the oldest dates that can be reliably measured by this process date to around 50, years ago, although special preparation methods occasionally permit accurate analysis of older samples.
Research has been ongoing since the s to determine what the proportion of 14 C in the atmosphere has been over the past fifty thousand years. The resulting data, in the form of a calibration curve, is now used to convert a given measurement of radiocarbon in a sample into an estimate of the sample's calendar age. Other corrections must be made to account for the proportion of 14 C in different types of organisms fractionation , and the varying levels of 14 C throughout the biosphere reservoir effects.
Additional complications come from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil, and from the above-ground nuclear tests done in the s and s. Because the time it takes to convert biological materials to fossil fuels is substantially longer than the time it takes for its 14 C to decay below detectable levels, fossil fuels contain almost no 14 C , and as a result there was a noticeable drop in the proportion of 14 C in the atmosphere beginning in the late 19th century.
Conversely, nuclear testing increased the amount of 14 C in the atmosphere, which attained a maximum in about of almost twice what it had been before the testing began. Measurement of radiocarbon was originally done by beta-counting devices, which counted the amount of beta radiation emitted by decaying 14 C atoms in a sample. More recently, accelerator mass spectrometry has become the method of choice; it counts all the 14 C atoms in the sample and not just the few that happen to decay during the measurements; it can therefore be used with much smaller samples as small as individual plant seeds , and gives results much more quickly.
The development of radiocarbon dating has had a profound impact on archaeology. In addition to permitting more accurate dating within archaeological sites than previous methods, it allows comparison of dates of events across great distances. Histories of archaeology often refer to its impact as the "radiocarbon revolution". Radiocarbon dating has allowed key transitions in prehistory to be dated, such as the end of the last ice age , and the beginning of the Neolithic and Bronze Age in different regions.
In , Martin Kamen and Samuel Ruben of the Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley began experiments to determine if any of the elements common in organic matter had isotopes with half-lives long enough to be of value in biomedical research. They synthesized 14 C using the laboratory's cyclotron accelerator and soon discovered that the atom's half-life was far longer than had been previously thought.
Korff , then employed at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia , that the interaction of thermal neutrons with 14 N in the upper atmosphere would create 14 C. In , Libby moved to the University of Chicago where he began his work on radiocarbon dating. He published a paper in in which he proposed that the carbon in living matter might include 14 C as well as non-radioactive carbon.
By contrast, methane created from petroleum showed no radiocarbon activity because of its age. The results were summarized in a paper in Science in , in which the authors commented that their results implied it would be possible to date materials containing carbon of organic origin. Libby and James Arnold proceeded to test the radiocarbon dating theory by analyzing samples with known ages. For example, two samples taken from the tombs of two Egyptian kings, Zoser and Sneferu , independently dated to BC plus or minus 75 years, were dated by radiocarbon measurement to an average of BC plus or minus years.
These results were published in Science in In nature, carbon exists as two stable, nonradioactive isotopes: The half-life of 14 C the time it takes for half of a given amount of 14 C to decay is about 5, years, so its concentration in the atmosphere might be expected to reduce over thousands of years, but 14 C is constantly being produced in the lower stratosphere and upper troposphere , primarily by galactic cosmic rays , and to a lesser degree by solar cosmic rays.
Once produced, the 14 C quickly combines with the oxygen in the atmosphere to form first carbon monoxide CO ,  and ultimately carbon dioxide CO 2. Carbon dioxide produced in this way diffuses in the atmosphere, is dissolved in the ocean, and is taken up by plants via photosynthesis. Animals eat the plants, and ultimately the radiocarbon is distributed throughout the biosphere. The ratio of 14 C to 12 C is approximately 1. The equation for the radioactive decay of 14 C is: During its life, a plant or animal is in equilibrium with its surroundings by exchanging carbon either with the atmosphere, or through its diet.
It will therefore have the same proportion of 14 C as the atmosphere, or in the case of marine animals or plants, with the ocean. Once it dies, it ceases to acquire 14 C , but the 14 C within its biological material at that time will continue to decay, and so the ratio of 14 C to 12 C in its remains will gradually decrease. The equation governing the decay of a radioactive isotope is: Measurement of N , the number of 14 C atoms currently in the sample, allows the calculation of t , the age of the sample, using the equation above.
The above calculations make several assumptions, such as that the level of 14 C in the atmosphere has remained constant over time. The calculations involve several steps and include an intermediate value called the "radiocarbon age", which is the age in "radiocarbon years" of the sample: Calculating radiocarbon ages also requires the value of the half-life for 14 C. Radiocarbon ages are still calculated using this half-life, and are known as "Conventional Radiocarbon Age".
Since the calibration curve IntCal also reports past atmospheric 14 C concentration using this conventional age, any conventional ages calibrated against the IntCal curve will produce a correct calibrated age. When a date is quoted, the reader should be aware that if it is an uncalibrated date a term used for dates given in radiocarbon years it may differ substantially from the best estimate of the actual calendar date, both because it uses the wrong value for the half-life of 14 C , and because no correction calibration has been applied for the historical variation of 14 C in the atmosphere over time.
Carbon is distributed throughout the atmosphere, the biosphere, and the oceans; these are referred to collectively as the carbon exchange reservoir,  and each component is also referred to individually as a carbon exchange reservoir. The different elements of the carbon exchange reservoir vary in how much carbon they store, and in how long it takes for the 14 C generated by cosmic rays to fully mix with them. This affects the ratio of 14 C to 12 C in the different reservoirs, and hence the radiocarbon ages of samples that originated in each reservoir.
There are several other possible sources of error that need to be considered. The errors are of four general types:. To verify the accuracy of the method, several artefacts that were datable by other techniques were tested; the results of the testing were in reasonable agreement with the true ages of the objects. Over time, however, discrepancies began to appear between the known chronology for the oldest Egyptian dynasties and the radiocarbon dates of Egyptian artefacts.
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. 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. 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. 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.
Radiocarbon dating is a key tool archaeologists use to determine the age they are using the wrong radiocarbon information," Manning said. Radiocarbon dating uses the naturally occurring isotope Carbon to The “ Old Wood Problem” is the last flaw of radiocarbon dating that will.
It is an essential technology that is heavily involved in archaeology and should be explored in greater depth. Radiocarbon dating uses the naturally occurring isotope Carbon to approximate the age of organic materials. Often, archaeologists use graves and plant remains to date sites. Since its conception by Willard Libby in , it has been invaluable to the discipline. In fact, many important archaeological artifacts have been dated using this method including some of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Shroud of Turin.
Radiocarbon dating also referred to as carbon dating or carbon dating is a method for determining the age of an object containing organic material by using the properties of radiocarbon , a radioactive isotope of carbon. The method was developed in the late s by Willard Libby , who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in
Radiocarbon dating is a key tool archaeologists use to determine the age of plants and objects made with organic material. But new research shows that commonly accepted radiocarbon dating standards can miss the mark—calling into question historical timelines.
Research illuminates inaccuracies in radiocarbon dating
Here I want to concentrate on another source of error, namely, processes that take place within magma chambers. To me it has been a real eye opener to see all the processes that are taking place and their potential influence on radiometric dating. Radiometric dating is largely done on rock that has formed from solidified lava. Lava properly called magma before it erupts fills large underground chambers called magma chambers. Most people are not aware of the many processes that take place in lava before it erupts and as it solidifies, processes that can have a tremendous influence on daughter to parent ratios.
ERRORS ARE FEARED IN CARBON DATING
Seventy years ago, American chemist Willard Libby devised an ingenious method for dating organic materials. His technique, known as carbon dating, revolutionized the field of archaeology. Now researchers could accurately calculate the age of any object made of organic materials by observing how much of a certain form of carbon remained, and then calculating backwards to determine when the plant or animal that the material came from had died. 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.
When we speak of the element Carbon, we most often refer to the most naturally abundant stable isotope 12 C.
Skip to main content. Log In Sign Up. The Problems of Radiocarbon Dating. The Problems of Radiocarbon Dating Science,
Answers to Creationist Attacks on Carbon-14 Dating
Radiocarbon dating can easily establish that humans have been on the earth for over twenty thousand years, at least twice as long as creationists are willing to allow. Therefore it should come as no surprise that creationists at the Institute for Creation Research ICR have been trying desperately to discredit this method for years. They have their work cut out for them, however, because radiocarbon C dating is one of the most reliable of all the radiometric dating methods. This article will answer several of the most common creationist attacks on carbon dating, using the question-answer format that has proved so useful to lecturers and debaters. Cosmic rays in the upper atmosphere are constantly converting the isotope nitrogen N into carbon C or radiocarbon. Living organisms are constantly incorporating this C into their bodies along with other carbon isotopes. When the organisms die, they stop incorporating new C, and the old C starts to decay back into N by emitting beta particles. The older an organism's remains are, the less beta radiation it emits because its C is steadily dwindling at a predictable rate. So, if we measure the rate of beta decay in an organic sample, we can calculate how old the sample is. C decays with a half-life of 5, years. Kieth and Anderson radiocarbon-dated the shell of a living freshwater mussel and obtained an age of over two thousand years.
Radiocarbon dating of soils has always been a tricky problem. Since organic matter is continually being introduced into the soil, the measured age of soil organic matter has always tended to underestimate the true age of the soil. Carbon exists in the most part in the isotope C, but has a radioactive isotope, C, with a half-life of years. All terrestrial organisms use carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a source of carbon, thus there is a constant exchange of C with the atmosphere. Since the rate of radioactive decay is proportional to the number of radioactive atoms present, it is unnecessary to measure the amount of C present in the soil sample. One need only measure the radioactivity per unit mass of carbon. Two systematic errors hamper the precision of radiocarbon dating:
Problems in the Radiocarbon Dating of Soils
Glenn A. Goodfriend, Jerry J. Stipp; Limestone and the problem of radiocarbon dating of land-snail shell carbonate. Geology ; 11 In order to test the role of limestone in producing anomalously old radiocarbon ages in land-snail shells, 14 C analyses were performed on shell carbonate of modern land snails from limestone and nonlimestone areas of Jamaica. No anomaly was found in snails from the nonlimestone area, implying that such material is suitable for radiocarbon dating. Snails from limestone areas produced variable anomalies of as much as 3, yr due to incorporation of 14 C-free limestone into shell carbonate.
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May 03 Read May 02 Read Apr 23 Read May 01 Read Apr 21 Read Feb 21 Read At least to the uninitiated, carbon dating is generally assumed to be a sure-fire way to predict the age of any organism that once lived on our planet. Without understanding the mechanics of it, we put our blind faith in the words of scientists, who assure us that carbon dating is a reliable method of determining the ages of almost everything around us.
Myths Regarding Radiocarbon Dating
To preserve these articles as they originally appeared, The Times does not alter, edit or update them. Occasionally the digitization process introduces transcription errors or other problems. Since , scientists have reckoned the ages of many old objects by measuring the amounts of radioactive carbon they contain. New research shows, however, that some estimates based on carbon may have erred by thousands of years. It is too soon to know whether the discovery will seriously upset the estimated dates of events like the arrival of human beings in the Western Hemisphere, scientists said. But it is already clear that the carbon method of dating will have to be recalibrated and corrected in some cases.
Radiocarbon Dating: A Closer Look At Its Main Flaws
Carbon dating is the standard method used by scientists to determine the age of certain fossilized remains. As scientists will often claim something to be millions or billions of years old ages that do not conform to the Biblical account of the age of the earth , Christians are often left wondering about the accuracy of the carbon method. This is carbon Carbon is an unstable, radioactive isotope of carbon As with any radioactive isotope, carbon decays over time.Radiometric Dating Debunked in 3 Minutes