Community Content
This article has been written and edited by the research team. It has not passed through the quality control procedures applied to content produced by the Research Outreach team.

Calculating ancient temperatures using oxygen

Temperature is the most primary representation of the state of the climate, and the temperature of the oceans is critical as the oceans are the single most crucial component of the Earth’s climate system. Isotopes and trace elements can be used to estimate ancient temperatures. Isotopic ratios can be taken from ice cores, sediment samples and fossil shells and bones. Oxygen isotope analyses of marine carbonate fossils could substantiate the modelled palaeoclimate evolution by providing information on oceanic palaeotemperatures. Elements used for calculating palaeotemperatures are called palaeothermometers.

What are isotopes?

The term isotope was coined by English radiochemist Fredrick Soddy (1913) to distinguish chemical elements with different atomical mass, different numbers of neutrons, but which occupy the same position of the periodic table, i.e. have the same numbers of protons and electrons. The term isotope is derived from iso meaning equal and the Greek topos meaning place in reference to the same placement in the periodic table.

Concentrations of isotopic species are represented by the relative abundance ratios of the heavy to the light isotopes in each sample to the ratio of a given standard. The values of the 𝛿 can be either positive, showing an enrichment of the heavier isotopes relative to the standard, or negative, showing depletion of the heavier isotopes relative to the standard.

Introduction to oxygen

The isotope used most often as a palaeothermometer is oxygen. Oxygen (O) has three stable isotopes: 16O, 17O, and 18O. It is the ratio of 18O to 16O that is usually used in palaeoclimatological studies. The ratio of 18O and 16O in biomineralised elements (that is bones, shells and teeth) is temperature dependent. During cool periods, such as glaciations, the lighter 16O isotope will evaporate at a much faster rate compared to the heavier 18O which is left behind in the water and is thus incorporated into shells and tests.

The use of oxygen isotope ratios as a palaeothermometer in carbonate minerals is based on the thermodynamic fractionation between 16O and 18O that happens during precipitation. Fractionation alters the 𝛿18O relative to temperature logarithmically over an oceanic temperature range of -2°C to 30°C of between -0.20‰ and -0.27‰ per °C in agreement with thermodynamic predictions. Because the oxygen isotopic proxy is based on thermodynamic principles, we expect it to be relatively unaffected by secondary kinetic factures. However, there are reasons to suspect that non-temperature dependent factors such as ontogenetic variations and seawater carbonate ions can affect the isotope ratios. Despite such issues, oxygen isotopic ratios are the most widely used and reliable palaeotemperature proxies.

The ratio of 16O to 18O decreases as temperatures and evaporation rates increase. In general, a 𝛿18O increase of 1.0‰ is equivalent to approximately 4°C of cooling. The reverse is true when water condenses. Isotope ratios are tracked using a Delta Notion with the Standard Mean Ocean Water (SMOW) as a reference.


Some fossils groups; principally foraminifera, brachiopods and belemnites can be used to directly measure, rather than interpret, palaeotemperatures and ice volumes. Geochemical proxies from foraminiferal tests have been used to reconstruct global ice volumes and temperatures from various water depths.

Organisms with hard parts made of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) combine dissolved oxygen from the water with carbon and calcium to form their shells. This ratio, so long as the material hasn’t been alternated during diagenesis, survives in the geological record.

A commonly used fossil during the Mesozoic (251-66 million years ago) are belemnites, a prehistoric squid-like animal. They make an ideal paleothermometer since their low-Mg calcite shells (called rostrum) are relatively resistant to diagenetic alternations. Being relatively large and having well organised growth lines means that details such as seasonal changes can be reconstructed (Ullmann et al. 2015).

The most commonly used fossil for the Cenozoic is foraminifera, a type of unicellular marine protist. Measurements of oxygen and carbon isotopes, and Mg/Ca ratios from calcite from foraminifera have been one of the most reliable methods of reconstructing past oceanic and climatic conditions. For example, δ18O values taken from foraminifera show a shift to glacial conditions in Antarctica near the Eocene – Oligocene boundary 34 million years ago (Lear et al., 2008).

Ice cores

When glacier ice is formed by the compression of snow, gas bubbles containing small amount of ancient atmospheric air are preserved. Isotopic measurements are taken from ice cores to measure the δD (deuterium – an isotope of hydrogen) and δ18O ratios. The oldest ice core sample comes from the Allan Hills of Antarctica and is 2.7 million years old (Yan et al. 2019).

Isotopes recovered from ice core are lighter than ocean water due to path fractionation – the process by which heavier isotopes are “rained out” so by the time they precipitate over higher latitudes there is a light isotope bias. Most of what we know about climate change over the last 2 million years comes from ice core samples from the north and south poles.


This article aimed to present a brief overview of the use of oxygen isotopes in calculating ancient temperatures. Temperature is the most primary representation of the state of the climate system. This is true both in the geological past and now. Thus, understanding how the climate responded in the past is fundamental to predicting and preparing for future climate change.

About this author

Jack Wilkin is a graduate researcher at the Camborne School of Mines (University of Exeter) in the United Kingdom. His research focuses on isotopic analysis of belemnites for palaeoclimate studies.


Anderson, T F., Arthur M A. (1983). Stable isotopes of oxygen and carbon and their application to sedimentologic and paleaoenvironmental problems. In Arthur, M A., Anderson, T F., Kaplan, I R., Veizer, J., Land, L S., eds., Stable Isotopes in Sedimentary Geology. SEPM Short Course #10, , Dallas, TX: Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists, pp.1-151.
Lear, C H., Bailey, T R., Pearson, P N., Coxall, H K., Rosenthal, Y. (2008). Cooling and ice growth across the Eocene-Oligocene transition. Geology, Volume 36 (3), pp. 251-254
Soddy, F. (1913). The Radio-Elements and the Periodic Law. Nature, Volume 91, pp. 57-58.
Ullmann, C V., Frei, R., Korte, C., Hesselbo, S P. (2015) Chemical and isotopic architecture of the belemnite rostrum. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta, Volume 159, pp. 231– 243.
Yan, Y., Bender, M L., Brook, E J …Higgins, J A. (2019). Two-million-year-old snapshots of atmospheric gases from Antarctic ice. Nature, Volume 574 (7780), pp. 663-666

Written By

Jack Thomas Rhodes Wilkin
Camborne School of Mines

Contact Details


Camborne School of Mines
University of Exeter
United Kingdom
TR10 9EZ

Want to read more articles like this?

Sign up to our mailing list and read about the topics that matter to you the most.
Sign Up!

One thought on “Calculating ancient temperatures using oxygen

  1. This is one nice summary. It would be nice if you please provide some workout (with data table and method) on temperature calculation from isotope ratio.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Thank you for expressing interest in joining our mailing list and community. Below you can select how you’d like us to interact with you and we’ll keep you updated with our latest content.

You can change your preferences or unsubscribe by clicking the unsubscribe link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or by contacting us at at any time and if you have any questions about how we handle your data, please review our privacy agreement.

Would you like to learn more about our services?

We use MailChimp as our marketing automation platform. By clicking below to submit this form, you acknowledge that the information you provide will be transferred to MailChimp for processing in accordance with their Privacy Policy and Terms.

Subscribe to our FREE PUBLICATION