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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.   10.1029/97jd00525   AbstractWebsite

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.

Severinghaus, JP, Bender ML, Keeling RF, Broecker WS.  1996.  Fractionation of soil gases by diffusion of water vapor, gravitational settling, and thermal diffusion. Geochimica Et Cosmochimica Acta. 60:1005-1018.   10.1016/0016-7037(96)00011-7   AbstractWebsite

Air sampled from the moist unsaturated zone in a sand dune exhibits depletion in the heavy isotopes of N-2 and O-2. We propose that the depletion is caused by a diffusive flux of water vapor out of the dune, which sweeps out the other gases, forcing them to diffuse back into the dune. The heavy isotopes of N-2 and O-2 diffuse back more slowly, resulting in a steady-state depletion of the heavy isotopes in the dune interior. We predict the effect's magnitude with molecular diffusion theory and reproduce it in a laboratory simulation, finding good agreement between field, theory, and lab. The magnitude of the effect is governed by the ratio of the binary diffusivities against water vapor of a pair of gases, and increases similar to linearly with the difference between the water vapor mole fraction of the site and the advectively mixed reservoir with which it is in diffusive contact (in most cases the atmosphere). The steady-state effect is given by delta(i) = [i/j/i(0)/j(0) - 1] 10(3) parts per thousand congruent to [(1 - x(H2O)/1 - x(H2O0))((Dj-H2O/Di-H2O)-1) -1] 10(3) parts per thousand, where delta(i) is the fractional deviation in permil of the gas i/gas j ratio from the advectively mixed reservoir, x(H2O) and x(H2O0) are respectively the mole fractions of water vapor at the site and in the advectively mixed reservoir, and D-i-H2O is the binary diffusion coefficient of gas i with water vapor. The effect is independent of scale at steady state, but approaches steady state with the time constant of diffusion set by the length scale. Exploiting the mechanism, we make an experimental estimate of the relative diffusivities of O-2 and N-2 against water vapor, finding that O-2 diffuses 3.6 +/- 0.3% faster than N-2 despite its greater mass. We also confirm in the study dune the presence of two additional known processes: gravitational fractionation, heretofore seen only in the unconsolidated firn of polar ice sheets, and thermal diffusion, well described in laboratory studies but not seen previously in nature. We predict that soil gases in general will exhibit the three effects described here, the water vapor flux fractionation effect, gravitational fractionation, and thermal diffusion. However, our analysis neglects Knudsen diffusion and thus may be inapplicable to fine-grained soils.