What is carbon dating

Carbon-14 is continually formed in nature by the interaction of neutrons with nitrogen-14 in the Earth’s atmosphere; the neutrons required for this reaction are produced by cosmic rays interacting with the atmosphere.

Radiocarbon present in molecules of atmospheric carbon dioxide enters the biological carbon cycle: it is absorbed from the air by green plants and then passed on to animals through the food chain.

“If you have a better estimate of when the last Neanderthals lived to compare to climate records in Greenland or elsewhere, then you’ll have a better idea of whether the extinction was climate driven or competition with modern humans,” says Paula Reimer, a geochronologist at Queen’s University in Belfast, UK.

She will lead efforts to combine the Lake Suigetsu measurements with marine and cave records to come up with a new standard for carbon dating.

Radiocarbon, or carbon 14, is an isotope of the element carbon that is unstable and weakly radioactive. Carbon 14 is continually being formed in the upper atmosphere by the effect of cosmic ray neutrons on nitrogen 14 atoms.By measuring the ratio of the radio isotope to non-radioactive carbon, the amount of carbon-14 decay can be worked out, thereby giving an age for the specimen in question.But that assumes that the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere was constant — any variation would speed up or slow down the clock.Two distinct sediment layers have formed in the lake every summer and winter over tens of thousands of years.The researchers collected roughly 70-metre core samples from the lake and painstakingly counted the layers to come up with a direct record stretching back 52,000 years.

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