Articles | Volume 9, issue 1
Research article
22 Jan 2013
Research article |  | 22 Jan 2013

Stable isotopes in caves over altitudinal gradients: fractionation behaviour and inferences for speleothem sensitivity to climate change

V. E. Johnston, A. Borsato, C. Spötl, S. Frisia, and R. Miorandi

Abstract. The interpretation of stable isotope ratios in speleothem calcite is complex, and only in a few cases, unequivocal relationships with palaeoclimate parameters have been attained. A major issue is temperature, which has an effect on both the isotope incorporation into calcite and on environmental processes. Here, a field approach is taken, by studying the isotopic composition of calcites from monitored caves located in steep altitudinal topography in the northern Italian Alps. These create a thermal gradient (3–12 °C) apt to study the effects of temperature on the speleothem isotope record. Our data indicate that the magnitude of oxygen isotope disequilibrium effects, calculated as an offset from the experimentally determined equilibrium, decreases with increased elevation (cooler temperatures) and faster drip rate. Carbon isotope values exhibit 13C enrichment at high altitudes (colder temperatures) and slow drip rates. The results obtained support modelling and laboratory cave analogue experiments that indicate temperature, drip rate, pCO2 and supersaturation are important factors controlling stable isotope fractionation, but also stress the significance of ventilation and evaporation in the cave environment. It is proposed that the effects on stable isotope ratios observed along the altitudinal gradient can be analogues for glacial to interglacial temperature changes in regions which were extensively glaciated in the past.