How is carbon dating used to determine the age of a substance

Determining the Age of a Fossil Using Carbon-14

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Materials that originally came from living things, such as wood and natural fibres, can be dated by measuring the amount of carbon they contain. For example, in , two hikers discovered a mummified man, preserved for centuries in the ice on an alpine mountain.

How Does Carbon Dating Work

Carbon is a radioactive isotope. It is found in the air in carbon dioxide molecules.


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  • The amount of carbon in the air has stayed the same for thousands of years. There is a small amount of radioactive carbon in all living organisms because it enters the food chain. Once an organism dies, it stops taking in carbon Carbon dating is used by archeologists to date trees, plants, and animal remains; as well as human artifacts made from wood and leather; because these items are generally younger than 50, years.

    What is Radiocarbon Dating?

    Carbon is found in different forms in the environment — mainly in the stable form of carbon and the unstable form of carbon Over time, carbon decays radioactively and turns into nitrogen. A living organism takes in both carbon and carbon from the environment in the same relative proportion that they existed naturally. Once the organism dies, it stops replenishing its carbon supply, and the total carbon content in the organism slowly disappears.


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    Scientists can determine how long ago an organism died by measuring how much carbon is left relative to the carbon Carbon has a half life of years, meaning that years after an organism dies, half of its carbon atoms have decayed to nitrogen atoms. Similarly, years after an organism dies, only one quarter of its original carbon atoms are still around.