Global Warming Affects Carbon Dating

climate-change-7The 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, CO2 from 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.

Endnotes

  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.
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4 thoughts on “Global Warming Affects Carbon Dating

  1. I’m sorry, but this is ridiculous – we’re supposed to impoverish the world and leave the 3rd world in squalor just so we can date archaelogical finds? They can’t even date the Shroud properly! (there’s a drawing of the Shroud, including the burn holes in the shape of an L, from about a century before the earliest date for the Shroud).

    Isn’t this making an asteroid out of an ant hill? Most archaelogists use several methods to date their finds – and set aside the C14 date if it doesn’t match the others. Like in the case of the mummy whose own C14 date was a 1000 yrs younger than the linen wrappings, even though the wrappings were original.

    Until liquid core thorium reactors are developed and common place, there won’t be any viable replacement for fossil fuels and hydroelectric power. Fusion will be twenty years in the future, forever! (I’m a nuclear engineer btw).

    I can’t believe the author could write this with a straight face, or without a /sarc tag, knowing that billions are about to join the developed countries in having proper living conditions, health care, and decent jobs all because of fossil fuels, accessible hydro, and nuclear power. And knowing that the big western experiments with subsidized green power are failing miserably – the power is too variable and you have to have a coal plant on standby anyway! Green power must be ADDING to their carbon footprint.

  2. Fossil fuels I believe were put here by God for us to use. So maybe this is his way of saying forget about carbon dating and get on with living the way I tell you. Don’t worry so much on how old something is, it’s not that important. Trust Jesus, read His Word and do what it says.

  3. So does that mean that other periods when CO2 was higher, or when temps were warmer (such as during the middle ages), the carbon dating of anything around or before that time is unreliable? It’s not like we’re in a particularly unique period of ultra-high carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, so this one’s a little hard to swallow – unless it’s conceded that there are other periods that have affected our ability to accurately date using carbon, as well.

    1. Hi Steve,

      Dr. Zweerink asked me to forward this response to your question.

      Steve, the primary concern here is not the temperature nor the level of CO2, but the the ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12. Burning fossil fuels (the cause of the current increase in CO2 levels) releases CO2 with no carbon-14, thus changing the ratio important for carbon dating. Previous levels of high CO2 would not have been from carbon-14 dead sources. Jeff

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