Oxygen isotope ratios of organic matter in arctic lakes as a paleoclimate proxy: Field and laboratory investigations

Peter E. Sauer, Gifford H. Miller, Jonathan T. Overpeck

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

67 Scopus citations


Paleoclimate research based on the stable isotopic composition of lake sediments is often hampered by the lack of preservation of suitable material for isotopic analysis. We examined organic material as a proxy for past water isotopic composition in a series of experiments. First, we cultured aquatic moss under constant illumination, temperature, and water δ18O, and show that new cellulose records source water δ18O precisely (r2 = 0.9997). Second, we analyzed paired lakewater and vegetation samples collected from sites spanning strong climatic gradients. In field conditions, the relationship between organic δ18O and water δ18O is more variable, though it is still controlled by environmental water isotopic composition. However, terrestrial mosses in the arctic are often significantly enriched in δ18O relative to aquatic mosses in nearby lakes due to their use of different water sources. Third, we measured δ18O of cellulose extracted from disseminated sedimentary organic material. In the majority of the middle- to high-arctic lakes in this study, the δ18O of disseminated sediment cellulose is greatly enriched relative to the expected values based on lakewater δ18O, suggesting a significant component of terrestrial cellulose. This interpretation is supported by radiocarbon dates from a Holocene sediment core in which 14C ages of sediment cellulose are 700-5000 yrs older than the enclosing sediments. We conclude that aquatic cellulose can be used as a reliable tracer of lakewater isotope ratios, but terrestrial cellulose often dominates the sedimentary cellulose pool in places such as Baffin Island where sedimentation rates are low enough to allow the degradation of aquatic cellulose. Care must be taken when interpreting sediment cellulose δ18O records where diagenesis has played a role, because terrestrial cellulose is more resistant to degradation, and therefore can predominate in environments with low organic carbon burial.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)43-64
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Paleolimnology
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2001


  • Arctic
  • Cellulose
  • Lake sediments
  • Organic matter
  • δO

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aquatic Science
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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