Established methods and new opportunities for pore water stable isotope analysis

Matthias Sprenger, Barbara Herbstritt, Markus Weiler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

91 Citations (Scopus)


The vadose zone plays a crucial role in the water cycle for storing water, providing water to vegetation and transporting solutes or degrading contaminants. Earth scientists have long acknowledged the importance of the vadose zone and numerous methods have been developed to better understand and predict hydrological processes within this “critical zone”. For several decades, stable isotopes (18O and 2H) of pore water are used as environmental tracers to gain insights into vadose zone water movement and other processes. To determine the pore water stable isotopic composition various sampling procedures have been developed. We present the procedure and the accompanied advantages and drawbacks of each method. We further discuss possible opportunities and limitations regarding the scale of interest and the pore space that is sampled. The methodological review reveals that the choice of the sampling method is crucial for the interpretation of pore water stable isotopes in the vadose zone, but a thorough comparison between the different methods is yet missing. Spiking experiments, where water of known isotopic composition is added to oven-dried soil, have shown to be questionable, since the extracted water is usually depleted compared to the standard water. A comparative study analyzing soil samples with the recently developed direct water-vapor equilibration method and the widely used cryogenic extraction shows deviations, which can only be partly explained, but discloses the need for a more thorough experimental comparative study. Especially promising are developments of continuous isotope measurements based on laser-based spectrometry that will open up new opportunities of analyzing pore water isotopes with higher temporal and spatial resolutions, revealing new insights into hydrological processes across various temporal and spatial scales.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5174-5192
Number of pages19
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number25
Early online date20 Sept 2015
Publication statusPublished - 15 Dec 2015

Bibliographical note

We thank Nikos Anestis, Benjamin Gralher and Lukas Kleine for conducting the CE analysis at the Helmholtz Zentrum München. We thank Begoña Lorente Sistiaga, André Böker, Tyler Weiglein and Andrea Popp for their support for data acquisition in the field and laboratory.This work is part of the DFG research project ‘From Catchments as Organised Systems to Models Based on Functional Units’ (FOR 1598). We appreciate the comments by two anonymous referees that helped improve the focus of the review manuscript.


  • vadose zone
  • water stable isotopes
  • soil hydrology
  • ecohydrology


Dive into the research topics of 'Established methods and new opportunities for pore water stable isotope analysis'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this