Evidence About Earth’s Past (Book)

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ABSOLUTE AGES OF ROCKS

- Carbon-14 Dating

The best-known method of radiometric dating is carbon-14 dating. A living thing takes in carbon-14 (along with stable carbon-12). As the carbon-14 decays, it is replaced with more carbon-14. After the organism dies, it stops taking in carbon. That includes carbon-14. The carbon-14 that is in its body continues to decay. So the organism contains less and less carbon-14 as time goes on. We can estimate the amount of carbon-14 that has decayed by measuring the amount of carbon-14 to carbon-12. We know how fast carbon-14 decays. With this information, we can tell how long ago the organism died.

Carbon-14 has a relatively short half-life. It decays quickly compared to some other unstable isotopes. So carbon-14 dating is useful for specimens younger than 50,000 years old. That’s a blink of an eye in geologic time. But radiocarbon dating is very useful for more recent events. One important use of radiocarbon is early human sites. Carbon-14 dating is also limited to the remains of once-living things. To date rocks, scientists use other radioactive isotopes.