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Radiocarbon could be key in predicting Earth's future

A new article from an international group of researchers highlights just how vital radiocarbon is to studying our planet’s past, and to predicting its future. 

“Radiocarbon is best known as the tool by which we date and synchronise many of the various archaeological and climate records from the last 55,000 years,” said study lead author Tim Heaton from the University of Sheffield.

“However, past levels of radiocarbon are also critical to understand the Sun, the geodynamo, past climate, and changes in the carbon cycle. Recent years have seen a revolution in our ability to construct detailed records of past radiocarbon levels, leading to new insights in the chronology of past climate events, changes in the Sun’s activity, carbon cycle and fluxes in carbon dioxide (CO2) levels.”

Radiocarbon can be used to learn about climatic events that occurred tens of thousands of years ago, and by learning about those past events, scientists are better able to test their climate models for future potential changes. 

Last year, an international group of researchers refined their measurements to set a new standard for radiocarbon dating. Heaton (who was also involved in that study) and his coauthors used measurements from over 15,000 sampled objects to create new radiocarbon calibration curves. This is important work, because climate scientists depend upon tools like this to accurately date and simulate ancient climatic events. 

“Radiocarbon permits the identification of CO2 fluxes such as the release of permafrost carbon. It also enables insight into the ocean’s role in climate change,” explained the study authors. This, in conjunction with other isotopes and an accurate paleomagnetic record, will help us unlock our planet’s past and, hopefully, give us an idea of what’s to come. 

“Accompanying improvements in our records of other cosmogenic nuclides and paleomagnetic reconstructions, in combination with modeling advances, will allow identification of key feedbacks within our Earth and climate system. This will elucidate causal chains and permit testing of key hypotheses, resulting in improved predictions of climate change,” wrote the study authors.

The research is published in the journal Science

By Alex Ruger, Staff Writer

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