Articles | Volume 10, issue 2
Research article
22 Apr 2014
Research article |  | 22 Apr 2014

What controls deuterium excess in global precipitation?

S. Pfahl and H. Sodemann

Abstract. The deuterium excess (d) of precipitation is widely used in the reconstruction of past climatic changes from ice cores. However, its most common interpretation as moisture source temperature cannot directly be inferred from present-day water isotope observations. Here, we use a new empirical relation between d and near-surface relative humidity (RH) together with reanalysis data to globally predict d of surface evaporation from the ocean. The very good quantitative agreement of the predicted hemispherically averaged seasonal cycle with observed d in precipitation indicates that moisture source relative humidity, and not sea surface temperature, is the main driver of d variability on seasonal timescales. Furthermore, we review arguments for an interpretation of long-term palaeoclimatic d changes in terms of moisture source temperature, and we conclude that there remains no sufficient evidence that would justify to neglect the influence of RH on such palaeoclimatic d variations. Hence, we suggest that either the interpretation of d variations in palaeorecords should be adapted to reflect climatic influences on RH during evaporation, in particular atmospheric circulation changes, or new arguments for an interpretation in terms of moisture source temperature will have to be provided based on future research.