Steady-state equations governing the transfer and distribution of a radioactive isotope between its various exchange reservoirs are applied to the natural distribution of carbon 14. The radiocarbon enrichment or depletion in each reservoir, relative to the hypothetical state in which mixing is infinitely faster than the decay rate, is evaluated as a quantitative function of the exchange rates between the reservoirs. From the observed distribution of C12, C13, and C14 in the atmosphere, biosphere, and sea, and from the estimated production rate of C14 by cosmic rays, the residence time of a carbon dioxide molecule in the atmosphere, before entering the sea, is found to be between four and ten years.

The atmospheric residence time may also be evaluated, independently of the estimated C14 production rate, by considering the functional dependence of the C14 concentration in the oceanic mixed layer on the residence times in the atmosphere and the deep sea. This second method of evaluation also leads to an atmospheric residence time of about seven years. The average annual exchange flux of carbon dioxide into the sea is thus about 2 times 10−2 moles per square centimeter of sea surface. The average residence time of carbon dioxide in the deep sea is estimated as probably not more than about 500 years.