Direct measurement of the boron isotope fractionation factor: Reducing the uncertainty in reconstructing ocean paleo-pH

Oded Nir, Avner Vengosh, Jennifer S. Harkness, Gary S. Dwyer, Ori Lahav

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

49 Scopus citations


The boron isotopic composition of calcium carbonate skeletons is a promising proxy method for reconstructing paleo-ocean pH and atmospheric CO2 from the geological record. Although the boron isotope methodology has been used extensively over the past two decades to determine ancient ocean-pH, the actual value of the boron isotope fractionation factor (εB) between the two main dissolved boron species, 11B(OH)3 and 10B(OH)-4, has remained uncertain. Initially, εB values were theoretically computed from vibrational frequencies of boron species, resulting in a value of ~19‰. Later, spectrophotometric pH measurements on artificial seawater suggested a higher value of ~27‰. A few independent theoretical models also pointed to a higher εB value. Here we provide, for the first time, an independent empirical fractionation factor (εB=26.0±1.0‰25 °C), determined by direct measurements of B(OH)3 in seawater and other solutions. Boric acid was isolated by preferential passage through a reverse osmosis membrane under controlled pH conditions. We further demonstrate that applying the Pitzer ion-interaction approach, combined with ion-pairing calculations, results in a more accurate determination of species distribution in aquatic solutions of different chemical composition, relative to the traditional two-species boron-system approach. We show that using the revised approach reduces both the error in simulating ancient atmospheric CO2 (by up to 21%) and the overall uncertainty of applying boron isotopes for paleo-pH reconstruction. Combined, this revised methodology lays the foundation for a more accurate determination of ocean paleo-pH through time.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-5
Number of pages5
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
StatePublished - 5 Mar 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Boron isotope fractionation
  • Ocean acidity
  • Ocean chemistry
  • Paleo-pH
  • Reverse osmosis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


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