South Pole

Looking upstream with clumped and triple oxygen isotopes of estuarine oyster shells in the early Eocene of California, USA


The δ18O of carbonate minerals that formed at Earth’s surface is widely used to investigate paleoclimates and paleo-elevations. However, a multitude of hydrologic processes can affect δ18O values, including mixing, evaporation, distillation of parent waters, and carbonate growth temperatures. We combined traditional carbon and oxygen isotope analyses with clumped (Δ47) and triple oxygen isotopes (Δ′17O) analyses in oyster shells (Acutostrea idriaensis) of the Goler Formation in southern California (USA) to obtain insights into surface temperatures and δ18O values of meteoric waters during the early Eocene hothouse climate. The Δ47-derived temperatures ranged from 9 °C to 20 °C. We found a correlation between the δ18O of growth water (δ18Ogw) (calculated using Δ47 temperatures and δ18O of carbonate) and the δ13C values of shells. The Δ′17O values of shell growth waters (0.006‰–0.013‰ relative to Vienna standard mean ocean water–standard light Antarctic precipitation [VSMOW-SLAP]) calculated from Δ′17O of carbonate (−0.087‰ to −0.078‰ VSMOW-SLAP) were lower than typical meteoric waters. These isotopic compositions are consistent with oyster habitation in an estuary. We present a new triple oxygen isotope mixing model to estimate the δ18O value of freshwater supplying the estuary (δ18Ofw). The reconstructed δ18Ofw of −11.3‰ to −14.7‰ (VSMOW) is significantly lower than the δ18Ogw of −4.4‰ to −9.9‰ that would have been calculated using “only” Δ47 and δ18O values of carbonate. This δ18Ofw estimate supports paleogeographic reconstructions of a Paleogene river fed by high-elevation catchments of the paleo–southern Sierra Nevada. Our study highlights the potential for paired Δ47 and Δ′17O analyses to improve reconstructions of meteoric water δ18O, with implications for understanding ancient climates and elevations.