New insights into the carbon isotope composition of speleothem calcite : an assessment from surface to subsurface
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The purpose of this study was to provide new insights into the interpretation of speleothem (cave calcite deposit) δ13C values. We studied two caves in central Texas, which have been actively monitored for over 12 years. We compared δ13C values of soil CO2 (δ13Cs), cave drip water (δ13CDIC), and modern cave calcite (δ13Ccc). Measured average δ13C values of soil CO2 were -13.9 ± 1.4‰ under mixed, shallowly-rooted C3-C4 grasses and were -18.3 ± 0.7‰ under deeply-rooted ashe juniper trees (C3). The δ13CDIC value of minimally-degassed drip water in Natural Bridge Caverns was -10.7 ± 0.3‰. The carbon isotope composition of CO2 in equilibrium with this measured drip water is -18.1 ± 0.3‰. The agreement between juniper soil CO2 and drip water (within ~0.2‰) suggests that the δ13C value of drip water (δ13CDIC) that initially enters the cave is controlled by deeply-rooted plants and may be minimally influenced by host-rock dissolution and/or prior calcite precipitation (PCP). At Inner Space Caverns, δ13CDIC values varied with vegetation above the drip site, distance from the cave entrance, and distance along in-cave flow paths. Whereas CO2 derived from deeply-rooted plants defines the baseline for drip water δ13CDIC entering the caves, kinetic effects associated with the degassing of CO2 and simultaneous precipitation of calcite account for seasonal variability in δ13CDIC and δ13Ccc. We documented increases in δ13CDIC at a rate of up to 0.47‰/hour during the season of peak degassing (winter), suggesting that δ13CDIC variations may be controlled by total elapsed time of CO2 degassing from drip water (Ttotal). We also observed seasonal shifts in the δ13C values of modern calcite grown on glass substrates that are correlated with shifts in drip water δ13CDIC values and drip-rate. Therefore, we suggest that increased aridity at the surface above a given cave results in, slower drip-rates, higher Ttotal, and therefore higher δ13CDIC values. We propose that large variability (>2‰) in speleothem δ13Ccc values dominantly reflect major vegetation changes, and/or increasing Ttotal by slowing drip-rates. Based on these findings, variability in speleothem carbon isotope records may serve as a proxy for paleoaridity and/or paleovegetation change.