Articles | Volume 6, issue 1
26 Feb 2010
 | 26 Feb 2010

An introduction to stable water isotopes in climate models: benefits of forward proxy modelling for paleoclimatology

C. Sturm, Q. Zhang, and D. Noone

Abstract. Stable water isotopes have been measured in a wide range of climate archives, with the purpose of reconstructing regional climate variations. Yet the common assumption that the isotopic signal is a direct indicator of temperature proves to be misleading under certain circumstances, since its relationship with temperature also depends on e.g. atmospheric circulation and precipitation seasonality. Here we introduce the principles, benefits and caveats of using climate models with embedded water isotopes as a support for the interpretation of isotopic climate archives. A short overview of the limitations of empirical calibrations of isotopic proxy records is presented. In some cases, the underlying hypotheses are not fulfilled and the calibration contradicts the physical interpretation of isotopic fractionation. The simulation of climate and its associated isotopic signal, despite difficulties related to downscaling and intrinsic atmospheric variability, can provide a "transfer function" between the isotopic signal and the considered climate variable. The relationship between modelled temperature and isotopic signal is analysed under present-day, pre-industrial and mid-Holocene conditions. The linear regression relationship is statistically more significant for precipitation-weighted annual temperature than mean annual temperature, yet the regression slope varies greatly between the time-slice experiments. Temperature reconstructions that do not account for the slope variations will in this case underestimate the low-frequency variability and overestimate high-frequency variability from the isotopic proxy record. The spatial variability of the simulated δ18O-temperature slope further indicates that the isotopic signal is primarily controlled by synoptic atmospheric circulation rather than local temperature.