Radiocarbon dating and the atomic bomb

Aboveground nuclear testing almost doubled the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere. The black arrow shows when the Partial Test Ban Treaty was enacted that banned aboveground nuclear tests. A special kind of radiocarbon dating: Bomb radiocarbon dating.

As we mentioned above, the carbon-14 to carbon-12 ratio in the atmosphere remains nearly constant.

It’s not absolutely constant due to several variables that affect the levels of cosmic rays reaching the atmosphere, such as the fluctuating strength of the Earth’s magnetic field, solar cycles that influence the amount of cosmic rays entering the solar system, climatic changes and human activities.

Among the significant events that caused a temporary but significant spike in the atmospheric carbon-14 to carbon-12 ratio were above-ground nuclear test detonations in the two decades following World War II.

A long-lived life history for a tropical, deep-water snapper (Pristipomoides filamentosus): bomb radiocarbon and lead–radium dating as extensions of daily increment analyses in otoliths.

Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 70, 1131–1140.

Most radiocarbon dating today is done using an accelerator mass spectrometer, an instrument that directly counts the numbers of carbon-14 and carbon-12 in a sample.

The unstable carbon-14 gradually decays to carbon-12 at a steady rate. Scientists measure the ratio of carbon isotopes to be able to estimate how far back in time a biological sample was active or alive.

This plot shows the level of carbon-14 in the atmosphere as measured in New Zealand (red) and Austria (green), representing the Southern and Northern Hemispheres, respectively.

Because the cosmic ray bombardment is fairly constant, there’s a near-constant level of carbon-14 to carbon-12 ratio in Earth’s atmosphere.

Organisms at the base of the food chain that photosynthesize – for example, plants and algae – use the carbon in Earth’s atmosphere.

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