Feasibility of using sand dunes as archives of old air

Severinghaus, JP, Keeling RF, Miller BR, Weiss RF, Deck B, Broecker WS.  1997.  Feasibility of using sand dunes as archives of old air. Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres. 102:16783-16792.

Date Published:



atmospheric methane, carbon, chlorofluorocarbon-11, cores, ice, isotopic composition, n-2, o-2, ratio, soil


Large unaltered samples of the atmosphere covering the past century would complement the history of atmospheric gases obtained from bubbles in ice cores, enabling measurement of geochemically important species such as O-2, (CH4)-C-14, and (CO)-C-14. Sand dunes are a porous media with interstitial air in diffusive contact with the atmosphere, somewhat analogous to the unconsolidated layer of firn atop glaciers. Recent studies have demonstrated the value of firn as an archive of old air [Battle et al., 1996; Bender et al., 1994a]. Unlike firn, sand dunes are incompressible and so remain permeable to greater depths and may extend the firn record into the past century. To evaluate the feasibility of using sand dunes as archives of old air, we drilled 60 m deep test holes in the Algodones Dunes, Imperial Valley, California. The main objective was to see if the air in a sand dune is as old as predicted by a diffusion model, or if the dune is rapidly flushed by advective pumping during windstorms and barometric pressure changes. We dated the air with chlorofluorocarbons and krypton-85, anthropogenic tracers whose atmospheric concentrations are known and have been increasing rapidly in the past half century. These tracer data match the pure diffusion model well, showing that advection in this dune is negligible compared to diffusion as a transport mechanism and that the mean age of the air at 61 m depth is similar to 10 years. Dunes therefore do contain old air. However, dunes appear to suffer from two serious drawbacks as archives. Microbial metabolism is evident in elevated CO2 and N2O and depressed CH4 and O-2 concentrations in this dune, corrupting the signals of interest in this and probably most dunes. Second, isotopic analyses of N-2 and O-2 from the dune show that fractionation of the gases occurs due to diffusion of water vapor, complicating the interpretation of the O-2 signal beyond the point of viability for an air archive. Sand dunes may be useful for relatively inert gases with large atmospheric concentration changes such as chlorofluorocarbons.