We all know what is the main cause behind the greenhouse effect and global warming. But fossil fuel emissions threaten to make yet another victim in the near future: the technique of carbon dating.
A new study carried out at Imperial College London claims that the process of carbon dating would no longer be of much use within the next decades. The technique is often used nowadays by archaeologists and historians across the world to determine the age of newly discovered objects.
Radiocarbon dating (as the process is also known) can determine the age of any material which at least partially contains organic matter with great reliability by up to 50,000 years in the past. It works by comparing the amount of the carbon-14 isotope left within a sample to the amount of other carbon elements. The less the amount of carbon-14 present, the older the object is.
But emissions that result from the burning of fossil fuels can drastically affect the isotope within any object and inflate the results of carbon dating. Since fossils fuels formed millions of years ago, all of their carbon-14 levels have completely decayed. When they are burned, the fill the atmosphere with other carbon-based elements, which reduces the proportion that the isotope has within any exposed object.
The study claims that this effect can be easily observed in plants that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as well as products manufactured from them. If the current levels of burned fossil fuels are maintained, a brand new cotton T-shirt made in 2050 would appear to have nearly as much carbon-14 as an object made a millennium ago.
The research team estimates the effects could be hampering the process of carbon dating within just five years. This will affect the progress of future discoveries of ancient artifacts, leaving historian with little choice but to use less reliable methods such as visually comparing the items.
All is not lost though. The current levels of carbon dioxide and other similar elements within the atmosphere have not yet seriously affected the process. If a significant reduction in fossil fuel emissions is achieved soon then carbon dating is safe.
This is just another item in the list of problems caused by CO2 emissions. But if more pressing matters such as global warming have only led to a few extra conferences on the issue from our world leaders, it might be unlikely that the loss of carbon dating would have more sway.
But one can always hope it will.
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