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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.They have the same ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 as the atmosphere, and this same ratio is then carried up the food chain all the way to apex predators, like sharks.But when gas exchange is stopped, be it in a particular part of the body like in deposits on bones and teeth, or when the entire organism dies, the ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 begins to decrease.Carbon has unique properties that are essential for life on earth.Familiar to us as the black substance in charred wood, as diamonds, and the graphite in “lead” pencils, carbon comes in several forms, or isotopes.However, carbon-14 dating offers something particularly valuable, called absolute dating, which is the age of the substance before the current time.
This plot shows the level of carbon-14 in the atmosphere as measured in New Zealand (red) and Austria (green), representing the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, respectively.
Here’s an example using the simplest atom, hydrogen. Carbon-14 is an unstable isotope of carbon that will eventually decay at a known rate to become carbon-12.
Radiocarbon dating uses isotopes of the element carbon. Cosmic rays – high energy particles from beyond the solar system – bombard Earth’s upper atmosphere continually, in the process creating the unstable carbon-14. Because it’s unstable, carbon-14 will eventually decay back to carbon-12 isotopes.
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