Uranium isotope fractionation induced by aqueous speciation: Implications for U isotopes in marine CaCO3 as a paleoredox proxy

Xinming Chen, Stephen J. Romaniello, Ariel Anbar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Natural variations of 238U/235U in marine CaCO3 rocks are being explored as a novel paleoredox proxy to investigate oceanic anoxia events. Although it is generally assumed that U isotopes in CaCO3 directly record 238U/235U of seawater, recently published laboratory experiments demonstrate slight U isotope fractionation during U(VI) incorporation into abiotic calcium carbonates. This fractionation is hypothesized to depend on aqueous U(VI) speciation, which is controlled by pH, ionic strength, pCO2 and Mg2+ and Ca2+ concentrations. Secular variation in seawater chemistry could lead to changes in aqueous U(VI) speciation, and thus, may affect the extent of U isotope fractionation during U(VI) incorporation into CaCO3. In this study, we combine estimates of seawater composition over the Phanerozoic with a model of aqueous U speciation and isotope fractionation to explore variations in the expected offset between the U isotope composition of seawater and primary marine CaCO3 through time. We find that U isotope fractionation between U in primary marine CaCO3 and seawater could have varied between 0.11 and 0.23‰ over the Phanerozoic due to secular variations in seawater chemistry. Such variations would significantly impact estimates of the extent of marine anoxia derived from the U isotope record. For example, at the Permo-Triassic boundary, this effect might imply that the estimated extent of anoxia is ∼32% more extreme than previously inferred. One significant limitation of our model is that the existing experimental database covers only abiotic carbonate precipitation, and does not include a possible range of biological effects which might enhance or suppress the range of isotopic fractionation calculated here. As biotic carbonates dominate the marine carbonate record, more work is need to assess controls on U isotopic fractionation into biotic marine carbonates.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)162-172
Number of pages11
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
StatePublished - Oct 15 2017


  • Anoxia
  • Mass extinction
  • Permo-Triassic
  • U isotopes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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