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You have to know what the atmospheric carbon level (the radiocarbon 'reservoir') was like at the time of an organism's death, in order to be able to calculate how much time has passed since the organism died.What you need is a ruler, a reliable map to the reservoir: in other words, an organic set of objects that you can securely pin a date on, measure its C14 content and thus establish the baseline reservoir in a given year.

radio carbon dating accuracy-47

Shy of a date stamp on an object, it is still the best and most accurate of dating techniques devised.

All living things exchange the gas Carbon 14 (C14) with the atmosphere around them—animals and plants exchange Carbon 14 with the atmosphere, fish and corals exchange carbon with dissolved C14 in the water.

Reimer of the CHRONO Centre for Climate, the Environment and Chronology, at Queen's University Belfast, began building an extensive dataset and calibration tool that they first called CALIB.

Since that time, CALIB, now renamed Int Cal, has been refined several times--as of this writing (January 2017), the program is now called Int Cal13.

Fortunately, we do have an organic object that tracks carbon in the atmosphere on a yearly basis: tree rings.

Trees maintain carbon 14 equilibrium in their growth rings—and trees produce a ring for every year they are alive.

So, if you measure the amount of C14 in a dead organism, you can figure out how long ago it stopped exchanging carbon with its atmosphere.

Given relatively pristine circumstances, a radiocarbon lab can measure the amount of radiocarbon accurately in a dead organism for as long as 50,000 years ago; after that, there's not enough C14 left to measure. Carbon in the atmosphere fluctuates with the strength of earth's magnetic field and solar activity.

These standard calibration curves assume that at any given time radiocarbon levels are similar and stable everywhere across each hemisphere. "We went looking to test the assumption behind the whole field of radiocarbon dating," Manning said.

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