Comparable hydrogen isotopic fractionation of plant leaf wax n-alkanoic acids in arid and humid subtropical ecosystems

Li Gao, Mei Zheng, Matthew Fraser, Yongsong Huang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Leaf wax hydrogen isotope proxies have been widely used to reconstruct past hydrological changes. However, published reconstructions have given little consideration for the potentially variable hydrogen isotopic fractionation relative to precipitation (εwax-p) under different climate and environmental settings. Chief among various potential factors controlling fractionation is relative humidity, which is known to strongly affect oxygen isotopic ratios of plant cellulose, but its effect on hydrogen isotopic fractionation of leaf waxes is still ambiguous. Analyses of lake surface sediments and individual modern plants have provided valuable information on the variability of εwax-p, but both approaches have significant limitations. Here, we present an alternative method to obtain the integrated, time-resolved ecosystem-level εwax-p values, by analyzing modern aerosol samples collected weekly from arid (Arizona lowlands) and humid subtropical (Atlanta, Georgia) environments during the main growth season. Because aerosol samples mainly reflect regional leaf wax resources, the extreme contrast in the hydroclimate and associated vegetation assemblages between our study sites allows us to rigorously assess the impact of relative humidity and associated vegetation assemblages on leaf wax hydrogen isotopic fractionation. We show there is only minor difference (mostly <10‰) in the mean εwax-p values in the two end-member environments. One possible explanation is that the positive isotopic effects of low relative humidity are offset by progressive replacement of trees with grasses that have a more negative apparent fractionation. Our results represent an important step toward quantitative interpretation of leaf wax hydrogen isotopic records.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)361-373
Number of pages13
JournalGeochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2014


  • arid
  • comparable
  • ecosystems
  • humid
  • hydrogen isotope fractionation
  • leaf waxes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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