21 Feb 2023
 | 21 Feb 2023
Status: this preprint is currently under review for the journal TC.

Isotopic diffusion in ice enhanced by vein-water flow

Felix S. L. Ng

Abstract. Diffusive smoothing of signals on the water stable isotopes (18O and D) in ice sheets fundamentally limits the climatic information retrievable from these ice-core proxies. Past theories explained how, in polycrystalline ice below the firn, fast diffusion in the network of intergranular water veins “short-circuits” the slow diffusion within crystal grains to cause “excess diffusion”, enhancing the rate of signal smoothing above that implied by self-diffusion in ice monocrystals. But the controls of excess diffusion are far from fully understood. Here, modelling shows that water flow in the veins amplifies excess diffusion, by altering the three-dimensional field of isotope concentration and isotope transfer between veins and grains. The rate of signal smoothing depends not only on temperature, vein and grain sizes, and signal wavelength, but also on vein-water flow velocity, which can increase the rate by 1 to 2 orders of magnitude. This modulation can significantly impact signal smoothing at ice-core sites in Greenland and Antarctica, as shown by simulations for the GRIP and EPICA Dome C sites, which reveal sensitive modulation of their diffusion-length profiles when vein-flow velocities reach ~ 101–102 m yr–1. Velocities of this magnitude also produce the levels of excess diffusion inferred by previous studies for the Holocene ice at GRIP and ice of Marine Isotope Stage 19 at EPICA Dome C. Thus, vein-flow mediated excess diffusion may help explain the mismatch between modelled and spectrally-derived diffusion lengths in other ice cores. We also show that excess diffusion biases the spectral estimation of diffusion lengths from isotopic signals (by making them dependent on signal wavelength) and the reconstruction of surface temperature from diffusion-length profiles (by increasing the ice contribution to diffusion length below the firn). Our findings caution against using the monocrystal isotopic diffusivity to represent the bulk-ice diffusivity. The need to predict the pattern of excess diffusion in ice cores calls for systematic study of isotope records for its occurrence and improved understanding of vein-scale hydrology in ice sheets.

Felix S. L. Ng

Status: open (until 18 Apr 2023)

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Felix S. L. Ng


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Short summary
The stable isotopes of oxygen and hydrogen in ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica are studied for the climate signals which they carry, and it has long been known that the system of water veins in ice facilitates isotopic diffusion. Here, mathematical modelling shows that water flow in the veins strongly accelerates the diffusion and thus the decay of climate signals. The process hampers methods that use the variations in signal decay with depth to reconstruct past climatic temperature.