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Concomitant variability in high-latitude aerosols, water isotopes and the hydrologic cycle


The interpretation of ice-core records rests on understanding the processes affecting trace constituents of the atmosphere that are preserved in ice. Stable-isotope ratios of ice are widely used as a palaeothermometer, an interpretation backed by well-established theory. In contrast, the interpretation of aerosols such as mineral dust and sea salts has remained a topic of debate. Here, we demonstrate that both the fractionation of water isotopes and the scavenging of aerosols are fundamentally driven by the same process, the condensation of water from the atmosphere. Water isotope ratios and aerosol concentrations in ice cores are remarkably coherent on all timescales longer than a few centuries. This shared low-frequency variability is dominated by the essential physics of the hydrologic cycle, which also accounts for the difference in variability between marine- and terrestrial-sourced aerosols in ice cores, as well as the global spatial pattern of aerosol changes recorded in both marine sediments and ice. These results have implications for past changes in radiative forcing and other fundamental aspects of climate, such as polar amplification, which are imprinted on the relationships between these proxy records.

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We thank J. P. Steffensen for initial inspiration for this study and discussion. We thank M. Sigl, O. Maselli, R. Rhodes, D. Pasteris, L. Layman and others in the Ultra-Trace Chemistry Laboratory at the Desert Research Institute for assistance in developing the nssCa and ssNa records. We acknowledge grants from the US National Science Foundation Division of Polar Programs (0537930 and 1043092 to E.J.S., 0839093 and 1142166 to J.R.M. and 1405204 to G.W.). G.W. was supported by a Senior Fellowship from the Center for Climate and Life.

Author information

B.R.M. conceived the study and carried out the primary analyses. B.R.M., G.H.R. and E.J.S. developed the rainout model. G.W. provided analyses comparing marine and ice-core records. J.R.M. provided the ice-core impurity measurements. B.R.M. led the manuscript writing, with assistance from E.J.S. and G.H.R. All authors discussed results and contributed to the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Bradley R. Markle.

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Fig. 1: Data from the WAIS Divide ice core.
Fig. 2: Simple model results for zonal mean temperature gradients.
Fig. 3: Comparison of observations and model.
Fig. 4: Global pattern of dust changes.