Radiocarbon dating is the most popular tool for assessing the ages of archaeological remains and producing climatic time series, as in lake- and sea-floor cores, provided that organic material can be recovered. Its precision has steadily improved, especially with the development of accelerator mass spectrometry, although it is still limited to the last 50 thousand years or so because of the short half-life of 14C (about 5,730 years,). The problem with dating based on radioactive 14C is its accuracy; i.e. does it always give a true date. This stems from the way in which 14C is produced – by cosmic rays interacting with nitrogen in the atmosphere. Cosmic irradiation varies with time and, consequently, so does the proportion of 14C in the atmosphere. It is the isotope’s proportion in atmospheric CO2 gas at any one time in the past, which is converted by photosynthesis to dateable organic materials, that determines the proportion remaining in a sample after decay through the time since the organism died and became fossilised. Various approaches have been used to allow for variations in 14C production, such as calibration to the time preserved in ancient timber by tree rings which can be independently radiocarbon dated. But that depends on timber from many different species of tree from different climatic zones, and that is affected by fractionation between the various isotopes of carbon in CO2, which varies between species of plant. But there is a better means of calibration.
The carbonate speleothem that forms stalactites and stalagmites by steady precipitation from rainwater, sometimes to produce visible layering, not only locks in 14C dissolved from the atmosphere by rainwater but also environmental radioactive isotopes of uranium and thorium. So, layers in speleothem may be dated by both methods for the period of time over which a stalagmite, for instance, has grown. This seems an ideal means of calibration, although there are snags; one being that the proportion of carbon in carbonates is dominated by that from ancient limestone that has been dissolved by slightly acid rainwater, which dilutes the amount of 14C in samples with so called ‘dead carbon’. Stalagmites in the Hulu Cave near Nanjing in China have particularly low dead-carbon fractions and have been used for the best calibrations so far, going back the current limit for radiocarbon dating of 54 ka (Cheng, H. and 14 others 2018. Atmospheric 14C/12C during the last glacial period from Hulku Cave. Science, v. 362, p. 1293-1297; DOI: 10.1126/science.aau0747). Precision steadily falls off with age because of the progressive reduction to very low amounts of 14C in the samples. Nevertheless, this study resolves fine detail not only of cosmic ray variation, but also of pulses of carbon dioxide release from the oceans which would also affect the availability of 14C for incorporation in organic materials because deep ocean water contains ‘old’ CO2.