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What allows scientists to measure how much carbon-14 was in an organism when it died is the assumption that the isotope is produced at a more or less steady rate that can be calibrated by comparing radiocarbon dates against more reliable tree ring dating.Since the ratio of carbon-14 to other carbon isotopes is fixed, and no new carbon-14 is absorbed after an organism dies, it's possible to estimate the time since the organism died going back tens or even hundreds of thousands of years by measuring the ratio of carbon-14 against stable carbon isotopes in ancient organic compounds.It's served archeology and other fields well, but now it's in a spot of bother.A new study by Heather D Graven from the Department of Physics and Grantham Institute at Imperial College London indicates that fossil fuel emissions are confusing things by drastically altering the ratio of carbon-14 to other isotopes.Radiocarbon dating is one of the great tools of science that has allowed archeologists to shed new light on everything from the building of Stonehenge to the beginnings of international trade.However, a new study from the Imperial College London suggests that fossil fuel carbon emissions may be so diluting radioactive carbon isotopes that within decades it will difficult to differentiate between modern artifacts and those over a thousand years old.The result is that anything within 300 years of today ("today" is defined as 1950) is modern.

When an organism dies, it ceases to absorb new carbon-14 and the clock starts ticking.Her study uses a simple carbon cycle model with a one-dimensional box diffusion model of the ocean, with the atmosphere and the biosphere represented as one-box carbon reservoirs.According to this model, the carbon being pumped into the atmosphere by vehicles and industry is diluting the carbon-14 by introducing large amounts of "fossil" carbon.That is, if you had a solid block of radium, half of it would decay into other elements in 1,600 years.In another 1,600 years, half of that would decay, and so on until it was all gone.

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