- © The Mineralogical Society Of America
The geochemistry of marine sediments is a major source of information about the past environment. Of the many measurements that provide such information, those of the U-series nuclides are unusual in that they inform us about the rate and timescales of processes. Oceanic processes such as sedimentation, productivity, and circulation, typically occur on timescales too short to be assessed using parent-daughter isotope systems such as Rb-Sr or Sm-Nd. So the only radioactive clocks that we can turn to are those provided by cosmogenic nuclides (principally 14C) or the U-series nuclides. This makes the U-series nuclides powerful allies in the quest to understand the past ocean-climate system and has led to their widespread application over the last decade.
As in other applications of the U-series, those in paleoceanography rely on fractionation of the nuclides away from secular equilibrium. In the oceanic setting, this fractionation is generally due to differences in the solubility of the various nuclides. The behavior of the U-series nuclides in the ocean environment was widely researched in the middle decades of the twentieth century. This work established knowledge of the concentrations of the nuclides in the various compartments of the ocean system, and of their fluxes between these compartments. Such understanding was comprehensively summarized in the Ivanovich and Harmon U-series volume (1992), particularly by Cochran (1992). Understanding of the behavior of the U-series nuclides has not advanced very dramatically in the decade since that summary but a major theme of research has been the use of this geochemical understanding to develop U-series tools to assess the past environment (Table 1⇓).