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Plants and animals naturally incorporate both the abundant C-12 isotope and the much rarer radiocarbon isotope into their tissues in about the same proportions as the two occur in the atmosphere during their lifetimes.

When a creature dies, it ceases to consume more radiocarbon while the C-14 already in its body continues to decay back into nitrogen.

Atoms of the same element that have different numbers of neutrons are called isotopes. Most carbon on Earth exists as the very stable isotope carbon-12, with a very small amount as carbon-13.

Here’s an example using the simplest atom, hydrogen. Carbon-14 is an unstable isotope of carbon that will eventually decay at a known rate to become carbon-12.

This plot shows the level of carbon-14 in the atmosphere as measured in New Zealand (red) and Austria (green), representing the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, respectively.

Aboveground nuclear testing almost doubled the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere. The black arrow shows when the Partial Test Ban Treaty was enacted that banned aboveground nuclear tests. A special kind of radiocarbon dating: Bomb radiocarbon dating.

It can be used on objects as old as about 62,000 years.In The Cosmic Story of Carbon-14 Ethan Siegel writes: The only major fluctuation [in carbon-14] we know of occurred when we began detonating nuclear weapons in the open air, back in the mid-20th Century.If you ever wondered why nuclear tests are now performed underground, this is why.But when gas exchange is stopped, be it in a particular part of the body like in deposits on bones and teeth, or when the entire organism dies, the ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 begins to decrease.The unstable carbon-14 gradually decays to carbon-12 at a steady rate. Scientists measure the ratio of carbon isotopes to be able to estimate how far back in time a biological sample was active or alive.It takes another 5,730 for half of the remainder to decay, and then another 5,730 for half of what's left then to decay and so on.