Carbon dating reliability

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Given relatively pristine circumstances, a radiocarbon lab can measure the amount of radiocarbon accurately in a dead organism for as long as 50,000 years ago; after that, there's not enough C14 left to measure. Carbon in the atmosphere fluctuates with the strength of earth's magnetic field and solar activity.

You have to know what the atmospheric carbon level (the radiocarbon 'reservoir') was like at the time of an organism's death, in order to be able to calculate how much time has passed since the organism died.

The half-life of an isotope like C14 is the time it takes for half of it to decay away: in C14, every 5,730 years, half of it is gone.

So, if you measure the amount of C14 in a dead organism, you can figure out how long ago it stopped exchanging carbon with its atmosphere.

Reimer and colleagues point out that Int Cal13 is just the latest in calibration sets, and further refinements are to be expected.

For example, in Int Cal09's calibration, they discovered evidence that during the Younger Dryas (12,550-12,900 cal BP), there was a shutdown or at least a steep reduction of the North Atlantic Deep Water formation, which was surely a reflection of climate change; they had to throw out data for that period from the North Atlantic and use a different dataset.

Radiocarbon dating was invented in the 1950s by the American chemist Willard F.

Libby and a few of his students at the University of Chicago: in 1960, he won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the invention.

The unswerving regularity of this decay allows scientists to determine the age of extremely old organic materials -- such as remains of Paleolithic campfires -- with a fair degree of precision.

Since that time, CALIB, now renamed Int Cal, has been refined several times--as of this writing (January 2017), the program is now called Int Cal13.

Int Cal combines and reinforces data from tree-rings, ice-cores, tephra, corals, and speleothems to come up with a significantly improved calibration set for c14 dates between 12,000 and 50,000 years ago.

What you need is a ruler, a reliable map to the reservoir: in other words, an organic set of objects that you can securely pin a date on, measure its C14 content and thus establish the baseline reservoir in a given year.

Fortunately, we do have an organic object that tracks carbon in the atmosphere on a yearly basis: tree rings.

It was the first absolute scientific method ever invented: that is to say, the technique was the first to allow a researcher to determine how long ago an organic object died, whether it is in context or not.

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