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800,000 Deuterium Record and Shorter Records of Various Isotopic Species from Ice Cores

This page provides an introduction and links to ice core records of deuterium (2H) and oxygen-18 (18O). These are useful indicators of global-scale temperature changes from long before modern instrumental records were begun. This is especially true in Antarctica where ice-cores provide records that extend back almost 800,000 years. Links to isotope data from modern instrumental records can be found at:

The lighter isotopes evaporate preferentially, especially if the water is cold, and the heavier isotopes condense preferentially to become precipitation. Air reaching polar regions is therefore depleted in the heavier isotopes compared to ocean water, and this is especially so during glacial episodes. Thus, 2H and 18O trapped in annual layers of ice can indicate hemispheric temperature, and, to a lesser extent, global temperature, over several glacial/interglacial cycles. Nitrogen-15 (15N) can also provide information about diffusion in firn ice, a process which depends on the temperature gradient within the firn; a strong gradient can indicate periods of rapid climate change.

These data have graciously been made freely available for access and distribution; the original investigators made the effort to obtain the data and assure their quality. Ice-core data are maintained by the World Data Center for Paleoclimatology, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. To assure proper credit is given, please follow the instructions in the headers of the data files, in readme files, and/or at the end of this page when using any of this material. If data accessed from this site are to be used in a publication we strongly recommend some contact with the principal investigators at an early stage of the work to be sure the data are being interpreted and used correctly. Neither the principal investigators nor CDIAC is responsible for misuse of these data.


Several investigators have contributed to the data set available from the Ice Core Gateway provided by the World Data Center for Paleoclimatology: A complete list is available at: (Under "obtaining data" click on "list of icecore data").

Some specific projects that have contributed much of the ice-core data are:

Collective Period of Record

From approximately 800,000 years before "present" (i.e., before 1950) into the 19th or 20th Century, depending on the particular core.


Locations of Antarctic ice-core stations. The highest elevation (above mean sea level) in Antarctica is about 4000 m, near Dome A.


Locations of Greenland ice-core stations. The highest elevation in Greenland is about 3250 m, between the GISP II and GRIP sites.

graphics Graphics

Antarctic Ice Cores

Greenland Ice Cores

data Data


Extraction of Ice Cores and Dating

A Rotating drill cuts an annulus of ice (typically about 10 cm in diameter) around a core which is extracted in sections of a few meters each. Samples from the core are melted so that gases can readily escape into a vacuum; then the sample is typically refrozen and the process is repeated to extract a larger sample of gases. The time a layer was formed can be found by several means besides counting layers, which has its limitations. The presence of ash from known volcanoes, comparison with ocean sediments, and other means are complimented by a glacial dynamics model, as described by Parrenin (2007).


Isotope ratios are then measured by mass spectrometry: in which molecules are bombarded with electrons to create ions with particular mass to charge ratios. Accelerated molecules of normal water, H2O, with 16 atomic mass units (a.m.u.), deuterium (17 a.m.u.) and H218O (18 a.m.u.) will follow different paths when exposed to an electromagnetic field. The number of ions passing along a particular path is measured by an electronic signal.

Reporting Data

The ratio of the amount of a less common stable isotope to that of the most common isotope of that element (isotope ratio) in a sample is compared to the isotope ratio in some standard reference material. The example below provides the general formula, using oxygen-18 as an example.

Value (per mil) = 1000 × [(18O/16O)sample – (18O/16O)reference ]/(18O/16O)reference
= 1000 × {[(18O/16O)sample/(18O/16O)reference] -1}

The multiplier of 1000 is convenient because isotope ratios and their differences are typically small; the results are expressed as per mil. The usual reference material for 18O and 2H in water is Vienna Mean Standard Ocean Water (V-SMOW) which is a blend of different water samples from around the world. Vostok data are expressed relative to an earlier reference, Standard Mean Ocean Water (SMOW), which was less well defined.


Isotopic data in ice cores provide information about past temperatures. On the time scales of interest here, Earth's temperature is primarily driven by Milankovitch cycles:, which result from gravitational influences of other bodies in the Solar System. These influences exert quasi-periodic changes in the shape of Earth's orbit and in the angle between plane of Earth's orbit and the Earth's axis. These changes have resulted in temperature cycles of around 100,000 years each over the last 800,000 years, due to their resonance status over that period of astronomical time. To see a graph of the deuterium record and corresponding CO2 concentrations at Dome C, Antarctica over the last 800,000 years, see:


  • F. Parrenin, J.-M. Barnola, J. Beer et al. 2007. The EDC3 chronology for the EPICA Dome C ice core Climate of the Past 3: 485–49 Jouzel, J., V. Masson-Delmotte, O. Cattani et alia. 2007. Orbital and Millennial Antarctic Climate Variability over the Past 800,000 Years. Science 317 (5839): 793-797.
  • Rasmussen, S.O., I.K. Seierdtad, K.K. Anderson, et al. 2008. Synchronization of the NGRIP, GRIP, and GISP2 ice cores across MIS 2 and palaeoclimatic implications. Quaternary Science Reviews 27: 6–17.
  • Sowers, T., Bender, M., and Raynaud, D. 1989. Elemental and isotopic composition of occluded O2 and N2 in polar ice, J. Geophys. Res., 94(D4): 5137–5150.
  • MacFarling Meure, C., D. Etheridge, C. Trudinger, P. Steele, R. Langenfelds, T. van Ommen, A. Smith and J. Elkins. 2006. The Law Dome CO2, CH4 and N2O Ice Core Records Extended to 2000 years BP. Geophysical Research Letters 33, 14, L14810 10.1029/2006GL026152.

Citing the Ice-Core Data

General instructions for citing data from the World Data Center for Paleoclimatology can be found at:

If citing material from this page only, cite as: 800,000 Year Ice-Core Records of Isotopes 2H, 18O, and other isotopic species, Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy. Path: