Isotope tracers in the water cycle


Water isotopes are the foundation for understanding the H and O isotopic composition of plant and animal tissues, supporting applications in areas such as ecophysiology, biogeochemistry, and migration ecology. Moreover water isotopes can record the impact of humans and the biosphere on the water cycle. The isotopic compositions of environmental waters have been extensively documented through global and national monitoring programs and thousands of published studies and reports. Long-standing theory relates variation of water isotope ratios to water cycle processes. Of primary importance is the transfer of water between liquid or solid and vapor phases during residence within or transport through a system (e.g., the atmosphere, streams, or plant tissues), which preferentially partitions the heavier isotopes 2H and 18O into the liquid and/or solid phases. In recent years, analysis of regional to continental scale datasets for precipitation and surface water isotope ratios using statistical and process-based models has demonstrated the potential to extract useful data on hydrological systems. The extension of this work to probe ecohydrological phenomena and the integration of stable isotope monitoring data with other environmental geodata has been limited, however.

This project will support a postdoc to advance spatial analysis and modeling methods for extracting ecohydrological and hydrological information from spatially distributed monitoring networks and investigate the strengths and limitations of water isotope tracers across a wide range of spatial scales. Strong foundations for this work include published data and formal and informal monitoring networks recording water isotopic composition. In addition, atmospheric water vapor isotope ratio data from satellites and several new networks of ground-based instruments, including new CRDS analyzers deployed by the project and ITCE faculty, are available to support this work.

The work should provide an enhaced basis for using network-based water isotope ratio data in support of ecological, hydrological, or hydroclimatological research. Potential fundamental research questions include:

  • Can isotopic monitoring data documenting the inputs (precipitation), outputs (streamflow) and boundary conditions (atmospheric vapor) be used to extract information on the spatial and temporal variability of catchment-scale partitioning of rainfall into runoff, evaporation, and storage?
  • Over what range of catchment scales and conditions can this be done, and to what degree does the use of model-derived data products to represent one or more isotopic parameters at large spatial scales compromise the application?
  • Can factors such as climate, land management (cropping, irrigation, urbanization), physiography, and ecosystem productivity (NDVI) be correlated with isotopic indicators for regional variation catchment water fluxes, and to what degree are these relationships static over larger (continental) scales?

Affiliated faculty

Bowen, Brooks, Dawson, Kendall, McDonnell, Pataki,Noone


ITCE News!

2018 course application window is now closed - admission decisions by end February

New Publication – SPATIAL and IsoCamp alum Cat Jarman develops ITCE research-in-residence project and reports paleogenomic analysis of skeletal samples in determining the origins of inhabitants of Rapa Nui. Read the paper published in Current Biology (here)

2018 Course Dates Announced!

Open PhD position - The research group of Prof. Kahmen at the University of Basel just published an open ERC-funded PhD position in stable isotope physiology. Read it (here).


New Publication - Marine isoscape paper from ITCE research-in-residence team including SPATIAL alum Sarah Magozzi, SPATIAL instructors Clive Trueman and Michael Wunder, and former ITCE post-doc Hannah Vander Zanden! Read it (here)!

New Publication - Marine Biology paper by SPATIAL alum Julia Adams (2015). Link to full-text article (here)!


New Publications - Two new papers by SPATIAL alum Sean Brennan involving salmon migration (here) and using dendritic network models to improve Strontium isoscapes (here)!


New Blog Post - Former SPATIAL student Katie Wedemeyer-Strombel discusses her experience as a SPATIAL student last summer! (Check it out here!)

Archived ITCE News


IsoMAP: WebGIS for Isotopes

IsoMAP is a dynamic, online workspace for spatial analysis, modeling and prediction of stable isotope ratio variation in the natural environment. The initial realease of the IsoMAP gateway is now live and supports precipitation isotope ratio modeling. Visit IsoMAP to learn more or to start making isoscapes today!