Scientists have developed a way to use corn plants to monitor and map the human-generated emissions of carbon dioxide.
Only a small fraction of Earth's atmosphere is carbon dioxide. In summer 2004, that share averaged about 378 parts per million (ppm), says James T. Randerson, a biogeochemist at the University of California, Irvine. Within that component, about one in a trillion of the carbon atoms is carbon-14 (C-14), a radioactive isotope produced by cosmic rays at high altitudes.
However, the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels has no C-14. That's because the isotope decays to undetectable concentrations after about 50,000 years, and fossil fuels derive from organic material much older than that. By measuring the proportion of C-14 in corn plants, Randerson and his colleagues can determine the mix of naturally occurring and fossil fuel–generated carbon dioxide that the plants absorbed as they grew.
Some of the highest concentrations of C-14 in