Biased estimates of the isotope ratios of steady-state evaporation from the assumption of equilibrium between vapour and precipitation Academic Article uri icon


  • 2019 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Stable water isotope ratios are measured as a tracer of environmental processes in materials such as leaves, soils, and lakes. Water in these archives may experience evaporation, which increases the abundance of heavy isotopologues proportionally to the gradients in humidity and isotope ratio between the evaporating water and the surrounding atmosphere. The isotope ratio of the atmosphere has been difficult to measure until recently, and measurements remain scarce. As a result, several assumptions have been adopted to estimate isotope ratios of atmospheric water vapour. Perhaps the most commonly employed assumption in terrestrial environments is that water vapour is in isotopic equilibrium with precipitation. We evaluate this assumption using an eight-member ensemble of general circulation model (GCM) simulations that include explicit calculation of isotope ratios in precipitation and vapour. We find that across the model ensemble, water vapour is typically less depleted in heavy isotopologues than expected if it were in equilibrium with annual precipitation. Atmospheric vapour likely possesses higher-than-expected isotope ratios because precipitation isotope ratios are determined by atmospheric conditions that favour condensation, which do not reflect atmospheric mixing and advection processes outside of precipitation events. The effect of this deviation on theoretical estimates of isotope ratios of evaporating waters scales with relative humidity. As a result, the equilibrium assumption gives relatively accurate estimates of the isotope ratios of evaporating waters in low latitudes but performs increasingly poorly at increasing latitudes. Future studies of evaporative water pools should include measurements of atmospheric isotope ratios or constrain potential bias with isotope-enabled GCM simulations.

published proceedings


altmetric score

  • 2

author list (cited authors)

  • Fiorella, R. P., West, J. B., & Bowen, G. J.

citation count

  • 14

complete list of authors

  • Fiorella, Richard P||West, Jason B||Bowen, Gabriel J

publication date

  • September 2019