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Global Warming Affects Carbon Dating

The mention of global warming—or its more current name, climate change—tends to bring out a lot of strong opinions. Those skeptical of human-induced climate change are often labeled “climate deniers.” Others use terms like scam or hoax toward the whole idea of global warming. Regardless of the issue’s criticisms, there is a reason to be concerned about increased carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere.

Although many factors affect global warming, the most talked about is the release of CO2 when fossil fuels burn. CO2 traps heat from the Sun and increases the temperature of the planet. However, it also contains carbon, and that carbon affects a dating technique that scientists use to date objects ranging in age from hundreds of years to tens of thousands of years. This technique utilizes the amount of radioactive carbon-14 relative to the more abundant, and stable, carbon-12. Although some question the validity of radiocarbon dating, research continues to demonstrate its reliability. Further, a remarkable set of “coincidences” leading to a 5,730-year half-life for carbon-14 make it uniquely suited to date things like Hezekiah’s tunnel, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other biblically significant artifacts.

However, continued burning of fossil fuels will affect the ability of scientists to find accurate radiocarbon dates for anything less than 1,000 years old. Specifically, CO2from fossil fuels contains virtually no carbon-14, only carbon-12. Research indicates that by 2050 this additional CO2 will change the carbon composition of the atmosphere to look like it’s nearly 1,000 years old. Any living organisms breathing this atmosphere will have a radiocarbon date of 1,000 years right after they die!1 In other words, unless we figure out how to reduce CO2 emissions in the next few decades, scientists’ capacity to use this incredibly powerful dating technique will diminish.

The contentious debate surrounding global warming probably will continue for many years. Regardless of your position in that discussion, we can all agree on the importance of radiocarbon dating. Let’s continue to seek solutions to the greenhouse emissions problem because doing so will both care for the planet as well as provide for humanity.

  1. Heather D. Graven, “Impact of Fossil Fuel Emissions on Atmospheric Radiocarbon and Various Applications of Radiocarbon over This Century,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 112 (June 2015): 9542–45, doi:10.1073/pnas.1504467112.