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But that assumes that the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere was constant — any variation would speed up or slow down the clock.

The clock was initially calibrated by dating objects of known age such as Egyptian mummies and bread from Pompeii; work that won Willard Libby the 1960 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Libby of the University of Chicago in immediate post-WW2 years.

Of practical importance to a wide range of scientific disciplines is the radiocarbon calibration, which is used for converting radiocarbon ages to calendar years; essential for measuring time and rates of change for numerous scientific fields.But even he “realized that there probably would be variation”, says Christopher Bronk Ramsey, a geochronologist at the University of Oxford, UK, who led the latest work, published today in Science.Various geologic, atmospheric and solar processes can influence atmospheric carbon-14 levels.Human-induced environmental changes are causing major shifts in ecosystems around the globe.To support environmental management, scientific research has to infer both general trends and context dependency in these shifts at global and local scales.

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