Impact of fossil fuel emissions on atmospheric radiocarbon and various applications of radiocarbon over this century
Heather D. Graven 1
Department of Physics and Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, London SW7 2AZ, United Kingdom
Edited by Susan E. Trumbore, Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, Jena, Germany, and approved June 8, 2015 (received for review March 4, 2015)
A wide array of scientific disciplines and industries use radiocarbon analyses; for example, it is used in dating of archaeological specimens and in forensic identification of human and wildlife tissues, including traded ivory. Over the next century, fossil fuel emissions will produce a large amount of CO2 with no 14C because fossil fuels have lost all 14C over millions of years of radioactive decay. Atmospheric CO2, and therefore newly produced organic material, will appear as though it has “aged,” or lost 14C by decay. By 2050, fresh organic material could have the same 14C/C ratio as samples from 1050, and thus be indistinguishable by radiocarbon dating. Some current applications for 14C may cease to be viable, and other applications will be strongly affected.
Radiocarbon analyses are commonly used in a broad range of fields, including earth science, archaeology, forgery detection, isotope forensics, and physiology. Many applications are sensitive to the radiocarbon (14C) content of atmospheric CO2, which has varied since 1890 as a result of nuclear weapons testing, fossil fuel emissions, and CO2 cycling between atmospheric, oceanic, and terrestrial carbon reservoirs. Over this century, the ratio 14C/C in atmospheric CO2 (Δ14CO2) will be determined by the amount of fossil fuel combustion, which decreases Δ14CO2 because fossil fuels have lost all 14C from radioactive decay. Simulations of Δ14CO2 using the emission scenarios from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report, the Representative Concentration Pathways, indicate that ambitious emission reductions could sustain Δ14CO2 near the preindustrial level of 0‰ through 2100, whereas “business-as-usual” emissions will reduce Δ14CO2 to −250‰, equivalent to the depletion expected from over 2,000 y of radioactive decay. Given current emissions trends, fossil fuel emission-driven artificial “aging” of the atmosphere is likely to occur much faster and with a larger magnitude than previously expected. This finding has strong and as yet unrecognized implications for many applications of radiocarbon in various fields, and it implies that radiocarbon dating may no longer provide definitive ages for samples up to 2,000 y old.
fossil fuel emissions radiocarbon atmospheric CO2 14C dating isotope forensics
Author contributions: H.D.G. designed research, performed research, analyzed data, and wrote the paper.
The authors declare no conflict of interest.
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