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Stable isotopes in precipitation


W. Dansgaard

Phys. Lab. II, H. C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, DK
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In chapter 2 the isotopic fractionation of water in some simple condensation-evaporation processes are considered quantitatively on the basis of the fractionation factors given in section 1|2. The condensation temperature is an important parameter, which has got some glaciological applications. The temperature effect (the δ's decreasing with temperature) together with varying evaporation and exchange appear in the “amount effect” as high δ's in sparse rain. The relative deuterium-oxygen-18 fractionation is not quite simple. If the relative deviations from the standard water (S.M.O.W.) are called δD and δ18, the best linear approximation is δD = 8 δ18.

Chapter 3 gives some qualitative considerations on non-equilibrium (fast) processes. Kinetic effects have heavy bearings upon the effective fractionation factors. Such effects have only been demonstrated clearly in evaporation processes, but may also influence condensation processes. The quantity d = δD −8 δ18 is used as an index for non-equilibrium conditions.

The stable isotope data from the world wide I.A.E.A.-W.M.O. precipitation survey are discussed in chapter 4. The unweighted mean annual composition of rain at tropical island stations fits the line δD = 4.6 δ18 indicating a first stage equilibrium condensation from vapour evaporated in a non-equilibrium process. Regional characteristics appear in the weighted means.

The Northern hemisphere continental stations, except African and Near East, fit the line δD = 8.0 δ18 + 10 as far as the weighted means are concerned (δD = 8.1 δ18 + 11 for the unweighted) corresponding to an equilibrium Rayleigh condensation from vapour, evaporated in a non-equilibrium process from S.M.O.W. The departure from equilibrium vapour seems even higher in the rest of the investigated part of the world.

At most stations the δD and varies linearily with δ18 with a slope close to 8, only at two stations higher than 8, at several lower than 8 (mainly connected with relatively dry climates).

Considerable variations in the isotopic composition of monthly precipitation occur at most stations. At low latitudes the amount effect accounts for the variations, whereas seasonal variation at high latitudes is ascribed to the temperature effect. Tokyo is an example of a mid latitude station influenced by both effects.

Some possible hydrological applications are outlined in chapter 5.

How to Cite: Dansgaard, W., 2012. Stable isotopes in precipitation. Tellus A: Dynamic Meteorology and Oceanography, 16(4), pp.436–468. DOI:
Published on 01 Jan 2012.
Peer Reviewed


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