other isotope pairs cover intermediate time periods between the spans for carbon 14 and uranium.Some radiometric dating methods depend upon knowing the initial amount of the isotope subject to decay.Dating Subject to Error But scientists have long recognized that carbon dating is subject to error because of a variety of factors, including contamination by outside sources of carbon.Therefore they have sought ways to calibrate and correct the carbon dating method.But when a plant or animal dies, it can no longer accumulate fresh carbon 14, and the supply in the organism at the time of death is gradually depleted.Since the rate of depletion has been accurately determined (half of any given amount of carbon 14 decays in 5,730 years), scientists can calculate the time elapsed since something died from its residual carbon 14.
When the carbon dioxide, containing C14 as well as stable C12 and C13, is taken in by plants it is no longer exposed to the intense cosmic ray bombardment in the upper atmosphere, so the carbon 14 isotope decays without being replenished.
Measuring the ratio of C14 to C12 and C13 therefore dates the organic matter for periods back to about eight half-lives of the isotope, 45,000 years.
After a long enough time the minority isotope is in an amount too small to be measured.
The Lamont-Doherty scientists conducted their analyses on samples of coral drilled from a reef off the island of Barbados.
The samples represented animals that lived at various times during the last 30,000 years. Alan Zindler, a professor of geology at Columbia University who is a member of the Lamont-Doherty research group, said age estimates using the carbon dating and uranium-thorium dating differed only slightly for the period from 9,000 years ago to the present.