Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Carbon-13 in tree-ring cellulose as an indicator of past climates


Following Urey's suggestion1 that the 13C abundance (usually expressed as a relative ratio: 13C/12C or δ13C) fixed in plant carbon may be temperature dependent, several authors have investigated the relationship between δ13C and climate. These workers searched for a coefficient relating δ13C variations to temperature variations2–7. The results, obtained on field collected samples, failed to yield agreement about the extent of a climatic effect or even its existence. Growth chamber experiments, performed on different plant species in controlled conditions to eliminate environmental factors other than temperature, showed no clear relationship between δ13C and temperature8,9. These various contradictory results suggest that factors other than temperature contribute to determining δ13C in plants. We now present evidence that the variations of the relative abundance of stable isotopes of carbon in tree rings indicate past climate changes. Thus carbon isotope composition appears to be a proxy indicator that may help to extend the meteorological data base into pre-instrument times.

Your institute does not have access to this article

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. Urey, H. C. J. chem. Soc. 562–581 (1947).

  2. Craig, H. Science 119, 141–143 (1954).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Smith, B. N. & Epstein, S. Pl. Physiol. 47, 380–384 (1970).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Lerman, J. C. Coll. Int. CNRS 219, 163–181 (1974).

    Google Scholar 

  5. Libby, L. M. et al. Nature 261, 284–288 (1976).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Pearman, G. I., Francey, R. J. & Fraser, P. J. B. Nature 260, 771–773 (1976).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Wilson, A. T. & Grinsted, M. J. Nature 265, 133–135 (1977).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Troughton, J. Yb. Carnegie Inst. Wash. 73, 780–783 (1974).

    Google Scholar 

  9. Smith, B. N., Oliver, J. & McMillan, C. Bot. Gaz. 137, 99–104 (1976).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Dean, J. S. & Robinson, W. J. Expanded Tree-Ring Chronologies for the Southwestern United States, 39 (Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, Univ. of Arizona, Tucson, 1978).

    Google Scholar 

  11. Robinson, W. J., Harrill, B. G. & Warren, R. Tree-Ring Dates from New Mexico, B 16–24 (Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, Univ. of Arizona, Tucson, 1974).

    Google Scholar 

  12. Bannister, B. in Science in Archaeology (eds Brothwell, D. & Higgs, E.) 191–205 (Thames and Hudson, London, 1969).

    Google Scholar 

  13. Stokes, M. A. & Smiley, T. A. An Introduction to Tree-Ring Dating (University of Chicago, 1968).

    Google Scholar 

  14. Fritts, H. C. Tree Rings and Climate (Academic, London, 1976).

    Google Scholar 

  15. Fritts, H. C. Ecol. Monogr. 44, 411–440 (1974).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. LaMarche, V. C. Jr Science 183, 1043–1048 (1975).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Fritts, H. C., Lofgren, R. G. & Gordon, G. A. Quat. Res. 12, 18–46 (1979).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Browning, B. L. Methods of Wood Chemistry (Interstate, New York, 1967).

    Google Scholar 

  19. Freyer, H. D. & Wiesberg, L. in Isotope Ratios as Pollutant Source and Behavior Indicators, 49–62 (IAEA, Vienna, 1975).

    Google Scholar 

  20. Tans, P. P. thesis, Univ. Gröningen (1978).

  21. Wigley, T. M. L., Gray, B. M. & Kelly, P. M. Nature 271, 92–93 (1978).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  22. Lerman, J. C. & Long, A. in Short Papers of the Fourth Int. Conf. Geochron. Cosmochron., Isotope Geol. (ed Zartman, R. E.) 248–250 (USGS, 1978); in Int. Meeting on Stable Isotopes in Tree-Ring Research, Proc., New Paltz, New York, 22–25 May 1979 (in the press).

    Google Scholar 

  23. Keeling, C. S. Geochim. cosmochim. Acta 23, 322–334 (1960); 24, 277–298 (1961).

    Google Scholar 

  24. Lerman, J. C. in Environmental and Biological Control of Photosynthesis (ed. Marcelle, R.) 323–335 (Jung, The Hague, 1975).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  25. Lerman, J. C. & Raynal, C.r. hebd. Séanc. Acad. Sci., Paris Ser. D 215, 1391–1394 (1974).

    Google Scholar 

  26. Arnold, L. D. thesis, Univ. Arizona (1979).

  27. Preston, R. J. Jr Rocky Mountain Trees, 1963 (Dover, New York, 1948).

    Google Scholar 

  28. Mazany, T. in Short Papers of the Fourth Int. Conf. Geochron. Cosmochron., Isotope Geol. (ed. Zartman, R. E.) 280–282 (US Geological Society, 1978).

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Mazany, T., Lerman, J. & Long, A. Carbon-13 in tree-ring cellulose as an indicator of past climates. Nature 287, 432–435 (1980).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing