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Since we cannot travel back in time to measure temperatures and other environmental conditions, we must rely on proxies for these conditions locked up in ancient geological materials.
The most widely applied proxy in studying past climate change are the isotopes of the element oxygen.
Naturally, the inaugural question in any study such as this is the one regarding definition. " One of the better extant definitions is that proffered by the INEEL Environment Surveillance, Education, and Research Program of the Idaho National Laboratory.
The INEEL defines isotopes as, "Two or more forms of an element having the same number of protons in the nucleus (or the same atomic number), but having different numbers of neutrons in the nucleus (or different atomic weights).
Thus, shells and other materials formed in the ocean tend to have more O-18 during colder, glacial intervals than during warmer intervals.
In the paragraphs that follow, the subject of oxygen-isotope ratios will be systematically dissected and explained.
Subtopics include: isotopes (generally), oxygen-isotopes (specifically), oxygen-isotope dynamics, application of oxygen-isotope dynamics to paleoclimate, and the practice of oxygen-isotope studies.
Examples of unstable isotopes abound and include such infamous elements as Uranium-238, Plutonium-239, Carbon-14, and Phosphorus-32.
Over time these elements emit alpha, beta, or gamma particles to become wholly different elements and/or elements with a lower energy state; that is, they radioactively decay.
Superimposed on the evaporation effect is a temperature effect.