Oceanography The Official Magazine of
The Oceanography Society
Volume 28 Issue 04

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Volume 28, No. 4
Pages 96 - 101


HANDS-ON OCEANOGRAPHY • Mimicking the Rayleigh Isotope Effect in the Ocean

By Elizabeth M. Griffith , Joseph D. Ortiz , and Anne J. Jefferson 
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Purpose of Activity

This activity provides hands-on exploration of the impact of Rayleigh distillation on the isotopic composition of water in different experimental reservoirs. Similar experimental methods have been a primary source of information for understanding isotopic variations in the natural system. Students are exposed to fundamentals of isotope geochemistry, isotope measurement using a cavity ring down spectroscopy (CRDS) instrument (e.g., Picarro, Los Gatos Research), or an isotope ratio mass spectrometer (IRMS) and associated calculations. Archived data from this project are available for instructors who wish to use the lab but lack access to a CRDS or IRMS instrument. This activity builds a foundation for exploration of stable isotope geochemistry appropriate for students in numerous courses.


Griffith, E.M., J.D. Ortiz, and A.J. Jefferson. 2015. Mimicking the Rayleigh isotope effect in the ocean. Oceanography 28(4):96–101, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2015.89.

Supplementary Materials

Lab Guide (897 KB pdf): The group lab guide, Rayleigh Isotope Effect in the Oceans: Building Glaciers, includes the lab hypothesis, methods, results (including calculations), discussion, and conclusion.

Table S1 (23 KB pdf): Approximate activity budget (compiled in 2015).

Table S2 (31 KB pdf): Selection of stable isotope laboratories that provide commercial analysis (costs based on 2015 rates).


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Griffith, E.M., J.D. Ortiz, A. Jefferson, D. Dees, and W. Merchant. 2014. Rayleigh Isotope Distillation Module: Development and Transferability in Geoscience Education. Paper presented at the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting, October 19–22, 2014, Vancouver, BC. 

Horita, J., and D.J. Wesolowski. 1994. Liquid-vapor fractionation of oxygen and hydrogen isotopes of water from the freezing to the critical temperature. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 58:3,425–3,437, https://doi.org/​10.1016/0016-7037(94)90096-5.

Jefferson, A., E.M. Griffith, J.D. Ortiz, D. Dees, and W. Merchant. 2014. Hands-on Experiences with Stable Isotopes in the Geosciences Curriculum. Paper presented at the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting, October 19–22, 2014, Vancouver, BC.

Kendall, C., and J.J. McDonnell, eds. 1998. Isotope Tracers in Catchment Hydrology. Elsevier, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 839 pp.

Shackleton, N. 1967. Oxygen isotope analyses and Pleistocene temperatures re-assessed. Nature 215:15–17, https://doi.org/10.1038/215015a0.

Sharp, Z. 2007. Principles of Stable Isotope Geochemistry. Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 344 pp.

Urey, H.C. 1947. The thermodynamic properties of isotopic substances. Journal of the Chemical Society 1947:562–581, https://doi.org/10.1039/JR9470000562.

Woelk, M. 2009. Simple, Real-Time Measurement of Stable Isotope Ratios in H2O and CO2. http://www.picarro.com/resources/whitepapers/simple_real_time_measurement_of_stable_isotope_ratios_in_hsub2subo_and_cosub2sub.

Copyright & Usage

This is an open access article made available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution, and reproduction in any medium or format as long as users cite the materials appropriately, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate the changes that were made to the original content. Images, animations, videos, or other third-party material used in articles are included in the Creative Commons license unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If the material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons license, users will need to obtain permission directly from the license holder to reproduce the material.