Since the advent of the Industrial revolution, humanity has been relying on heavily greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuels as an energy source.
This behavior, although slightly on the decline in recent years due to concerns related to accelerated climate change, also decreased the level of carbon-14 or radioactive carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Carbon-14 is the building block of the technique known as carbon dating, that has been used since the 1940s to accurately date artifacts, uncover art scams and the use of which spans biology, archeology, history and other sectors.
As greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels are concentrating in the atmosphere at an increased pace, carbon dating risks being outdated as a scientific tool. The depleting levels of carbon-14 in the atmosphere might render carbon dating useless as soon as 2050, according to a new study.
The study was conducted by climate-physics researcher Heather Graven of the Imperial College London. According to the study’s findings, high fossil fuel emissions concentrated in the atmosphere lead to artificial increase of the carbon age. The same process affects objects which, scanned with a carbon-14 dating tool, will be classified as older than they really are.
For instance, if models are correct, a clothing item manufactured in 2050 would have the same carbon age as one manufactured 1,000 years before.
According to the Environmental Research Web, Doctor Heather Graven stated:
“Combustion of fossil fuels is diluting the fraction of atmospheric carbon dioxide containing radiocarbon. This is making the atmosphere appear as though it has aged, or lost radiocarbon by radioactive decay occurring over time”.
The study looked at scenarios of fossil fuel carbon emissions in the next 100 years. Results indicated that if fossil fuel emissions are not at least slightly tamed by 2020, the carbon release in the atmosphere will make it age by 1,000 years by 2050 and 2,000 years by 2100.
Fossil fuel contain no traces of radioactive carbon as they are indeed quite old. Burning fossil fuels thus releases only nonradioactive carbon in the atmosphere, diluting carbon-14.
The accuracy of carbon dating depends greatly on whether fossil fuel carbon emissions increase or decrease in the next decades.
The study can be studied in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.
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