Palaeotemperature reconstruction from noble gases in ground water taking into account equilibration with entrapped air


Noble-gas concentrations in ground water have been used as a proxy for past air temperatures1,2,3,4,5,6,7, but the accuracy of this approach has been limited by the existence of a temperature-independent component of the noble gases in ground water, termed ‘excess air’, whose origin and composition is poorly understood7,8,9. In particular, the evidence from noble gases in a Brazilian aquifer for a cooling of more than 5 °C in tropical America during the Last Glacial Maximum4 has been called into question9. Here we propose a model for dissolved gases in ground water, which describes the formation of excess air by equilibration of ground water with entrapped air in quasi-saturated soils10,11,12. Our model predicts previously unexplained noble-gas data sets, including the concentration of atmospheric helium, and yields consistent results for the non-atmospheric helium isotopes that are used for dating ground water. Using this model of excess air, we re-evaluate the use of noble gases from ground water for reconstructing past temperatures. Our results corroborate the inferred cooling in Brazil during the Last Glacial Maximum4, and indicate that even larger cooling took place at mid-latitudes.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: He isotope ratio versus Ne/He elemental ratio of samples from Belgium.
Figure 2: Comparison of new and original noble gas temperatures (NGTs) from Brazil.


  1. 1

    Mazor, E. Paleotemperatures and other hydrological parameters deduced from gases dissolved in groundwaters, Jordan Rift Valley, Israel. Geochem. Cosmochim. Acta 36, 1321–1336 ( 1972).

  2. 2

    Andrews, J. N. & Lee, D. J. Inert gases in groundwater from the Bunter Sandstone of England as indicators of age and palaeoclimatic trends. J. Hydrol. 41, 233–252 (1979).

  3. 3

    Stute, M. & Schlosser, P. in Climate Change in Continental Isotopic Records (eds Swart, P. K., Lohmann, K. C., McKenzie, J. & Savin, S.) 89–100 (American Geophysical Union, Washington DC, 1993).

  4. 4

    Stute, M. et al. Cooling of tropical Brazil (5 °C) during the Last Glacial Maximum. Science 269, 379– 383 (1995).

  5. 5

    Beyerle, U. et al. Climate and groundwater recharge during the last glaciation in an ice-covered region. Science 282, 731 –734 (1998).

  6. 6

    Weyhenmeyer, C. E. et al. Cool glacial temperatures and changes in moisture source recorded in Oman groundwaters. Science 287, 842– 845 (2000).

  7. 7

    Stute, M. & Schlosser, P. in Environmental Tracers in Subsurface Hydrology (eds Cook, P. & Herczeg, A. L.) 349– 377 (Kluwer Academic, Boston, 2000).

  8. 8

    Heaton, T. H. E. & Vogel, J. C. “Excess air” in groundwater. J. Hydrol. 50, 201–216 (1981).

  9. 9

    Ballentine, C. J. & Hall, C. M. An inverse technique for calculating paleotemperatures and other variables using noble gas concentrations in groundwater. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 63, 2315–2336 (1999).

  10. 10

    Christiansen, J. E. Effect of entrapped air upon the permeability of soils. Soil Sci. 58, 355–365 ( 1944).

  11. 11

    Fayer, M. J. & Hillel, D. Air encapsulation: 1. Measurement in a field soil. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 50, 568–572 (1986).

  12. 12

    Faybishenko, B. A. Hydraulic behavior of quasi-saturated soils in the presence of entrapped air: Laboratory experiments. Wat. Resour. Res. 31, 2421–2435 (1995).

  13. 13

    Lehmann, B. E. & Purtschert, R. Radioisotope dynamics – the origin and fate of nuclides in groundwater. Appl. Geochem. 12, 727–738 (1997).

  14. 14

    Schlosser, P., Stute, M., Sonntag, C. & Münnich, K. O. Tritiogenic 3He in shallow groundwater. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 94, 245–256 (1989).

  15. 15

    Aeschbach-Hertig, W. et al. A 3H/3He study of ground water flow in a fractured bedrock aquifer. Ground Wat. 36 , 661–670 (1998).

  16. 16

    Dunkle Shapiro, S., Rowe, G., Schlosser, P., Ludin, A. & Stute, M. Tritium-helium 3 dating under complex conditions in hydraulically stressed areas of a buried-valley aquifer. Wat. Resour. Res. 34, 1165–1180 (1998).

  17. 17

    Beyerle, U. et al. Infiltration of river water to a shallow aquifer investigated with 3H/3He, noble gases and CFCs. J. Hydrol. 220, 169–185 (1999).

  18. 18

    Solomon, D. K., Hunt, A. & Poreda, R. J. Source of radiogenic helium 4 in shallow aquifers: Implications for dating young groundwater. Wat. Resour. Res. 32, 1805–1813 (1996).

  19. 19

    Osenbrück, K., Lippmann, J. & Sonntag, C. Dating very old pore waters in impermeable rocks by noble gas isotopes. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 62, 3041–3045 (1998).

  20. 20

    Heaton, T. H. E., Talma, A. S. & Vogel, J. C. Origin and history of nitrate in confined groundwater in the western Kalahari. J. Hydrol. 62, 243–262 (1983).

  21. 21

    Wilson, G. B. & McNeill, G. W. Noble gas recharge temperatures and the excess air component. Appl. Geochem. 12, 747–762 (1997).

  22. 22

    Stute, M. & Talma, A. S. in Isotope Techniques in the Study of Environmental Change 307–318 (IAEA, Vienna, Austria, 1998).

  23. 23

    Aeschbach-Hertig, W., Peeters, F., Beyerle, U. & Kipfer, R. Interpretation of dissolved atmospheric noble gases in natural waters. Wat. Resour. Res. 35, 2779–2792 ( 1999).

  24. 24

    Aeschbach-Hertig, W., Stute, M., Schlosser, P., Clark, J. & Reuter, R. Large (9°C) glacial-interglacial temperature difference derived from an aquifer in Maryland (abstr.). Eos 77 , (Suppl.) S157 (1996)

  25. 25

    Mamyrin, B. A. & Tolstikhin, I. N. Helium Isotopes in Nature (Elsevier, Amsterdam, 1984).

  26. 26

    CLIMAP. The surface of the ice-age Earth. Science 191, 1131– 1137 (1976).

  27. 27

    Rostek, F. et al. Reconstructing sea surface temperature and salinity using δ18O and alkenone records. Nature 364, 319–321 (1993).

  28. 28

    Rind, D. & Peteet, D. Terrestrial conditions at the last glacial maximum and CLIMAP sea-surface temperature estimates: Are they consistent? Quat. Res. 24, 1–22 (1985).

  29. 29

    Thompson, L. G. et al. Late glacial stage and holocene tropical ice core records from Huascarán, Peru. Science 269, 46–50 (1995).

  30. 30

    Benson, B. B. & Krause, D. Isotopic fractionation of helium during solution: A probe for the liquid state. J. Solut. Chem. 9, 895–909 ( 1980).

Download references


We thank J. Holocher and H. Baur for help in the laboratory and for discussions, and M. Stute, R. Reuter, K. Walraevens, J. Lermytte and C. Weyhenmeyer for collaboration in the field studies.

Author information

Correspondence to W. Aeschbach-Hertig.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Aeschbach-Hertig, W., Peeters, F., Beyerle, U. et al. Palaeotemperature reconstruction from noble gases in ground water taking into account equilibration with entrapped air. Nature 405, 1040–1044 (2000).

Download citation

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.