alexa Do n-alkane biomarkers in soils sediments reflect the δ²H isotopic composition of precipitation? A case study from Mt. Kilimanjaro and implications for paleoaltimetry and paleoclimate research.
Geology & Earth Science

Geology & Earth Science

Journal of Earth Science & Climatic Change

Author(s): Zech M, , Zech R, Rozanski K, Gleixner G,

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Abstract During the last decade compound-specific deuterium ((2)H) analysis of plant leaf wax-derived n-alkanes has become a promising and popular tool in paleoclimate research. This is based on the widely accepted assumption that n-alkanes in soils and sediments generally reflect δ(2)H of precipitation (δ(2)H(prec)). Recently, several authors suggested that δ(2)H of n-alkanes (δ(2)H(n-alkanes)) can also be used as a proxy in paleoaltimetry studies. Here, we present results from a δ(2)H transect study (∼1500 to 4000 m above sea level [a.s.l.]) carried out on precipitation and soil samples taken from the humid southern slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Contrary to earlier suggestions, a distinct altitude effect in δ(2)H(prec) is present above ∼2000 m a.s.l., that is, δ(2)H(prec) values become more negative with increasing altitude. The compound-specific δ(2)H values of nC27 and nC29 do not confirm this altitudinal trend, but rather become more positive both in the O-layers (organic layers) and the Ah-horizons (mineral topsoils). Although our δ(2)H(n-alkane) results are in agreement with previously published results from the southern slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro [Peterse F, van der Meer M, Schouten S, Jia G, Ossebaar J, Blokker J, Sinninghe Damsté J. Assessment of soil n-alkane δD and branched tetraether membrane lipid distributions as tools for paleoelevation reconstruction. Biogeosciences. 2009;6:2799-2807], a re-interpretation is required given that the δ(2)H(n-alkane) results do not reflect the δ(2)H(prec) results. The theoretical framework for this re-interpretation is based on the evaporative isotopic enrichment of leaf water associated with the transpiration process. Modelling results show that relative humidity, decreasing considerably along the southern slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro (from 78\% in ∼2000 m a.s.l. to 51\% in 4000 m a.s.l.), strongly controls δ(2)H(leaf water). The modelled (2)H leaf water enrichment along the altitudinal transect matches well the measured (2)H leaf water enrichment as assessed by using the δ(2)H(prec) and δ(2)H(n-alkane) results and biosynthetic fractionation during n-alkane biosynthesis in leaves. Given that our results clearly demonstrate that n-alkanes in soils do not simply reflect δ(2)H(prec) but rather δ(2)H(leaf water), we conclude that care has to be taken not to over-interpret δ(2)H(n-alkane) records from soils and sediments when reconstructing δ(2)H of paleoprecipitation. Both in paleoaltimetry and in paleoclimate studies changes in relative humidity and consequently in δ(2)H(n-alkane) values can completely mask altitudinally or climatically controlled changes in δ(2)H(prec). This article was published in Isotopes Environ Health Stud and referenced in Journal of Earth Science & Climatic Change

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