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Snow isotopic content change by sublimation

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We present results from cold-laboratory observations of changes in isotopic (18O and D) content by sublimation in snow and ice samples under nearly isothermal conditions. The results show large increases in observed 18O and D in snow samples within several centimeters of the surface. They contradict the assumption of a non-changing isotopic content due to layer-by-layer transport mechanisms driven by sublimation/desublimation processes. The data also do not support the idea that isotopic changes of snow and firn are limited by the possibility that the ice matrix incorporates the atmospheric water vapor and that forced water-vapor diffusion in the pore space (wind pumping) is a requirement for isotopic content change. The observations show that sublimation from ice samples results in much lower increases in heavy-isotope content in the first several millimetres near the sublimating surface over the same time period, despite sublimation intensities similar to those of the snow samples. The results suggest that continuous phase transitions inside snow (recrystallization) are the process responsible for the isotopic content change because they are the primary mass-exchange mechanism between the snow mass and the surrounding environment. Modeling the isotopic content of the ice matrix therefore requires inclusion of a two-stage process: fractionation at the ice-matrix surface due to repetitive phase transitions, and fractionation due to preferable diffusion of light water isotopes in the pore space. For interpretation of the observed natural isotopic profiles in snow, the first process can be linked to the time a snow layer undergoes recrystallization, while the second process is related to the total ice/snow mass gain/loss determined by the external environmental conditions.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: December 1, 2009

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  • The Journal of Glaciology is published six times per year. It accepts submissions from any discipline related to the study of snow and ice. All articles are peer reviewed. The Journal is included in the ISI Science Citation Index.
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