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Water isotope systematics: Improving our palaeoclimate interpretations

January 1, 2017

The stable isotopes of oxygen and hydrogen, measured in a variety of archives, are widely used proxies in Quaternary Science. Understanding the processes that control δ18O change have long been a focus of research (e.g. Shackleton and Opdyke, 1973; Talbot, 1990 ; Leng, 2006). Both the dynamics of water isotope cycling and the appropriate interpretation of geological water-isotope proxy time series remain subjects of active research and debate. It is clear that achieving a complete understanding of the isotope systematics for any given archive type, and ideally each individual archive, is vital if these palaeo-data are to be used to their full potential, including comparison with climate model experiments of the past. Combining information from modern monitoring and process studies, climate models, and proxy data is crucial for improving our statistical constraints on reconstructions of past climate variability.

As climate models increasingly incorporate stable water isotope physics, this common language should aid quantitative comparisons between proxy data and climate model output. Water-isotope palaeoclimate data provide crucial metrics for validating GCMs, whereas GCMs provide a tool for exploring the climate variability dominating signals in the proxy data. Several of the studies in this set of papers highlight how collaborations between palaeoclimate experimentalists and modelers may serve to expand the usefulness of palaeoclimate data for climate prediction in future work.

This collection of papers follows the session on Water Isotope Systematics held at the 2013 AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco. Papers in that session, the breadth of which are represented here, discussed such issues as; understanding sub-GNIP scale (Global Network for Isotopes in Precipitation, (IAEA/WMO, 2006)) variability in isotopes in precipitation from different regions, detailed examination of the transfer of isotope signals from precipitation to geological archives, and the implications of advances in understanding in these areas for the interpretation of palaeo records and proxy data – climate model comparison.

Here, we briefly review these areas of research, and discuss challenges for the water isotope community in improving our ability to partition climate vs. auxiliary signals in palaeoclimate data.