Climate Change Research

Our continuously changing climate has significant impacts on both society and our environment. We hear news of floods, storms, and droughts almost daily. Studying our past climate helps us understand climate change and provides clues that help us plan for the future.


Studying past climate

To study Earth's past climate and make predictions about future climate changes, scientists use a variety of proxy methods and materials, including fossils, ice sheets, sediments, tree rings, shells, and rocks.

For example, isotopic analysis of ice cores and biogenic carbonates can provide insights into past global temperature and sea level fluctuation. Lighter isotopes evaporate more quickly from warmer water, so shelled creatures that live in that environment tend to have shells enriched in heavier isotopes.

An additional technique for paleotemperature reconstruction is clumped isotope thermometry, which is based on the thermodynamic properties of 18O and 13C bonding and does not require knowledge of oxygen isotope ratios. In addition to carbon and oxygen isotopic composition, magnesium, strontium and calcium elemental information can help reconstruct water temperatures of the past.


Popular products

253 Plus with Kiel IV carbonate device

253 Plus with Kiel IV carbonate device

Investigate (paleo-)climate using the 253 Plus 10 kV Isotope Ratio MS (IRMS). Combined with our unique peripherals, such as the Kiel IV Carbonate Device and GasBench II, the 253 Plus is the instrument of choice for obtaining high-precision oxygen and carbon isotope ratio data in ice cores and carbonates.

Delta Ray CO2 Isotope Ratio Infrared Spectrometer with URI Connect

Delta Ray Isotope Ratio Infrared Spectrometer with URI Connect

The Delta Ray Isotope Ratio Infrared Spectrometer (IRIS) with URI Connect bundle gives you the ability to analyze samples immediately, in the field. The IRIS system enables production of δ13C and δ18O data from water, carbonate, DIC, and bulk carbonate samples. Its built-in referencing system and portable reference gas containers make it a simple and reliable to use. With its ready-to-go software solution, you can start your measurements instantly.

Element Series HR-ICP-MS

Element Series HR-ICP-MS

For climate change research, geoscientists analyze Mg, Sr and Ca elemental concentrations in calcite shells. These analyses are routinely done with the Element 2 and Element XR High-Resolution ICP-MS systems. These systems cover the mg/L to sub-pg/L concentration ranges, making them especially suitable for geological laboratories. Both instruments allow accurate and reliable quantitative multi-element analyses at trace levels, with the high sensitivity and without complicated sample preparation.


Oxygen Isotope Ratio Analysis of Water in Ice Cores

Changes in the oxygen isotope composition in ice layers represent changes in average ocean surface temperature. How does this work? Water molecules contain both heavy and light isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen. The water that forms glaciers (from which ice cores are taken) starts as vapor from the ocean. It then falls as snow and is compacted into ice.

253 Plus (with Kiel IV)

When water evaporates from warmer waters, the heavier oxygen isotope, 18O, is left behind, leaving the water vapor enriched in the lighter isotope, 16O. As a result, the glaciers are relatively enriched in 16O, while the oceans are relatively enriched in 18O. The difference in isotope ratio is more pronounced in colder climates than in warmer climates because the warmer temperatures allow the heavier isotopes to evaporate as well. As ice cores reflect geological time, the oxygen isotope variability in the cores can be used to reconstruct a history of past temperatures.

Further reading

  • Triple Isotopic Composition of Oxygen in Water from Ice Cores
    Recent analytical developments have made it possible to measure the triple isotopic composition of oxygen in water with high precision. In this note, our customers concentrate on the study of δ18O, d-excess and especially the added value of 17O-excess in polar ice cores for constraining the relationship between climate and water cycle organization.

Oxygen and Carbon Isotope Ratio Analysis of Carbonates

The stable oxygen isotope geochemistry of fossils, as well as sediments in aquatic and marine environments is one of the most important tools in paleoceanography and paleoclimatology. Shells from animal and plant fossils all contain oxygen (either in the form of calcium carbonate or silicon dioxide). Once the organisms die, their shells, get buried in sediments on the bottom of lakes and oceans. By drilling cores into the sediment layer, scientists collect these fossils and use them to “read” past climate.

The oxygen isotope composition in the shells of these animals can reveal how cold the ocean was and how much ice existed at the time when the shell formed. When ocean waters are cold, the shells generally contain greater proportions of heavier oxygen isotopes.

In addition to measuring isotope ratios, a technique called clumped isotope thermometry has emerged as a new tool for paleotemperature constructions. This technique is based on the thermodynamic properties of 18O and 13C, which clump together, forming temperature-dependent bonds inside the carbonate. This type of thermometry does not depend upon oxygen isotope ratios.

High precision and high throughput are required for stable isotope analysis. The 253 Plus 10 kV IRMS, together with the Kiel IV Carbonate Device, is the gold standard for carbon and oxygen isotope analysis of carbonates, producing world-class data from small foraminifera samples. The Kiel IV carbonate device is a fully automated sample preparation device for dissolving carbonate material and extracting carbon and oxygen. It uses the principle of the individual acid bath for conversion of carbonates to CO2. The reaction of carbonates with phosphoric acid produces CO2 and H2O plus non-condensable gases from impurities in the sample.

Featured products

The cryogenic trapping system consists of a temperature-controlled first trap with associated valves, ultra-high vacuum system, pressure gauge, and a microvolume. With the 253 Plus IRMS and Kiel IV Carbonate Device, precisions of better than 0.1 ‰ can be reached for total carbonate amounts as far down as 6 µg. Using these instruments, paleoclimatologists can resolve 0.5 °C temperature changes.

For larger samples, the GasBench II with the Kiel IV Carbonate Device option, combined with the 253 Plus IRMS, can be used for precise and accurate measurements of stable isotopes in forams.

Delta Ray CO2 Isotope Ratio Infrared Spectrometer with URI Connect

Further reading

Mg/Ca and Sr/Ca as paleothermometers

Element Series HR-ICP-MS

Strontium and magnesium levels in corals are highly dependent on surrounding water temperature at the time of their deposition. This feature enables geoscientists to use Sr/Ca and Mg/Ca ratios in fossil corals as proxy indicators of past surface water temperatures. The major analytical challenge with obtaining accurate Mg/Ca and Sr/Ca elemental ratios is that these elements are present at widely different concentrations. High-resolution ICP-MS may be used to address this challenge.

Further reading

Oxygen Isotope Ratio Analysis of Water in Ice Cores

Changes in the oxygen isotope composition in ice layers represent changes in average ocean surface temperature. How does this work? Water molecules contain both heavy and light isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen. The water that forms glaciers (from which ice cores are taken) starts as vapor from the ocean. It then falls as snow and is compacted into ice.

253 Plus (with Kiel IV)

When water evaporates from warmer waters, the heavier oxygen isotope, 18O, is left behind, leaving the water vapor enriched in the lighter isotope, 16O. As a result, the glaciers are relatively enriched in 16O, while the oceans are relatively enriched in 18O. The difference in isotope ratio is more pronounced in colder climates than in warmer climates because the warmer temperatures allow the heavier isotopes to evaporate as well. As ice cores reflect geological time, the oxygen isotope variability in the cores can be used to reconstruct a history of past temperatures.

Further reading

  • Triple Isotopic Composition of Oxygen in Water from Ice Cores
    Recent analytical developments have made it possible to measure the triple isotopic composition of oxygen in water with high precision. In this note, our customers concentrate on the study of δ18O, d-excess and especially the added value of 17O-excess in polar ice cores for constraining the relationship between climate and water cycle organization.

Oxygen and Carbon Isotope Ratio Analysis of Carbonates

The stable oxygen isotope geochemistry of fossils, as well as sediments in aquatic and marine environments is one of the most important tools in paleoceanography and paleoclimatology. Shells from animal and plant fossils all contain oxygen (either in the form of calcium carbonate or silicon dioxide). Once the organisms die, their shells, get buried in sediments on the bottom of lakes and oceans. By drilling cores into the sediment layer, scientists collect these fossils and use them to “read” past climate.

The oxygen isotope composition in the shells of these animals can reveal how cold the ocean was and how much ice existed at the time when the shell formed. When ocean waters are cold, the shells generally contain greater proportions of heavier oxygen isotopes.

In addition to measuring isotope ratios, a technique called clumped isotope thermometry has emerged as a new tool for paleotemperature constructions. This technique is based on the thermodynamic properties of 18O and 13C, which clump together, forming temperature-dependent bonds inside the carbonate. This type of thermometry does not depend upon oxygen isotope ratios.

High precision and high throughput are required for stable isotope analysis. The 253 Plus 10 kV IRMS, together with the Kiel IV Carbonate Device, is the gold standard for carbon and oxygen isotope analysis of carbonates, producing world-class data from small foraminifera samples. The Kiel IV carbonate device is a fully automated sample preparation device for dissolving carbonate material and extracting carbon and oxygen. It uses the principle of the individual acid bath for conversion of carbonates to CO2. The reaction of carbonates with phosphoric acid produces CO2 and H2O plus non-condensable gases from impurities in the sample.

Featured products

The cryogenic trapping system consists of a temperature-controlled first trap with associated valves, ultra-high vacuum system, pressure gauge, and a microvolume. With the 253 Plus IRMS and Kiel IV Carbonate Device, precisions of better than 0.1 ‰ can be reached for total carbonate amounts as far down as 6 µg. Using these instruments, paleoclimatologists can resolve 0.5 °C temperature changes.

For larger samples, the GasBench II with the Kiel IV Carbonate Device option, combined with the 253 Plus IRMS, can be used for precise and accurate measurements of stable isotopes in forams.

Delta Ray CO2 Isotope Ratio Infrared Spectrometer with URI Connect

Further reading

Mg/Ca and Sr/Ca as paleothermometers

Element Series HR-ICP-MS

Strontium and magnesium levels in corals are highly dependent on surrounding water temperature at the time of their deposition. This feature enables geoscientists to use Sr/Ca and Mg/Ca ratios in fossil corals as proxy indicators of past surface water temperatures. The major analytical challenge with obtaining accurate Mg/Ca and Sr/Ca elemental ratios is that these elements are present at widely different concentrations. High-resolution ICP-MS may be used to address this challenge.

Further reading


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