Bad News for Science: Fossil Fuels May Impact Carbon Dating by 2100

As early as 2100, fossil fuel emissions may have a huge impact on the esteemed carbon dating technique, leaving archaeologists, paleontologists and researchers in many varied fields unable to tell the difference in age between a new plant and an old fossil from hundreds of years ago.

Burning Fossil Fuels Affects More Than Just Climate Change

Fossil fuels have been a notorious phrase when paired with climate change and ecological systems for quite some time. Now, they may be even more insidious than ever.

New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences proves fossil fuels may will ultimately create devastating problems to radiocarbon dating, an important research technique used by a variety of scientists and industries.

Fossil Fuel Emissions May Make Carbon Dating Obsolete

From paleontologists dating dinosaur bones to archaeologists uncovering the ages of ancient humans to law enforcement agencies use of identifying human remains, carbon dating is used in many fields. According to the research author Heather Graven of Imperial College London, if fossil fuel emissions continue growing at the rate they have been, the carbon difference between old and new things will be insignificant as an accurate method of dating.

Why Fossil Fuels and Their Emission will Impact Carbon Dating

Graven, a climate physicist whose research focuses on human activities, climate change, and the global carbon cycle, argues that by the year 2100, researchers using the carbon dating technique will be unable to tell apart newly-dead foliage from 2,000-year-old papyrus, like the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Though it may seem inconsequential to those outside of the science fields of paleontology and archaeology, the loss of the carbon dating technique that reveals the age of a particular subject will affect law enforcement, crime labs, meteorologists, oceanographers, and so many more industries.

To fully understand the implications of Graven’s research, the science behind carbon dating must be explained.

The science behind carbon dating

Boiled down as simply as possible, radiocarbon dating in essence measures the ratio of carbon-14 in a sample to carbon-13, the more stable isotope that carbon-14 becomes over time. As the carbon-14 levels fall, so does the ratio, which means the sample being tested is older.

But how does the carbon get into us in the first place? Basically, every day atmospheric nitrogen is converted by cosmic rays into radiocarbon, which then combines with atmospheric oxygen to become carbon dioxide. Every day, carbon dioxide is absorbed by plants via photosynthesis. Animals and humans acquire carbon-14 through eating plants or eating animals that eat plants. When something dies, the carbon-14 within that sample starts to undergo radioactive decay. So the less carbon-14, the older the sample.

How reduced fossil fuel emissions can help save carbon dating

Though the research has shown that carbon dating may be at risk, Dr. Graven has also suggested that reducing fossil fuel emissions is still an option.

Depending on whether we increase or decrease our reliance and use of fossil fuels, we may be able to save one of the most widely-used research techniques in science and keep utilizing radiocarbon dating for much longer.


We might still be able to save radiocarbon dating in taking care of the planet. Atmoph celebrates nature in our planet: