Articles | Volume 9, issue 1
Clim. Past, 9, 99–118, 2013

Special issue: Advances in understanding and applying speleothem climate...

Clim. Past, 9, 99–118, 2013

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. Johnston1, A. Borsato1, C. Spötl2, S. Frisia3, and R. Miorandi1 V. E. Johnston et al.
  • 1Geology Section, Museo delle Scienze, Via Calepina 14, 38122 Trento, Italy
  • 2Institut für Geologie und Paläontologie, Universität Innsbruck, Innrain 52, 6020 Innsbruck, Austria
  • 3School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle, Callaghan, 2308 NSW, Australia

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.