Isotopes Home

Isotopes Introduction
Stable Isotopes

Hydrologic Applications

Methods of Analysis:
Decay Counting
Mass Spectometry

Gas Source
Thermal Ionization (TIMS)
Accelerator (AMS)

Isotope Labs [PDF]

Glossary of Terms

About this Website

Resources for teachers


Strontium has 4 stable isotopes. 87Sr is radiogenic, being produced through the decay of 87Rb. Natural variation in the abundance of 87Sr/86Sr ratio can be used to trace strontium sources to surface and groundwater.


Cost of Analysis
(return to top)

Thermal Ionization Mass Spectrometer (TIMS): $250-$375 per sample. For information and detailed prices, see, for example:

Geochron Laboratories or

Isotope Geochemistry Lab at the University of Maryland

(return to top)

The alkali earth metal strontium (Sr) has four naturally occurring stable isotopes: 84Sr, 86Sr, 87Sr, and 88Sr. Of these, 87Sr is the only radiogenic isotope, produced through the beta decay of 87Rb. Consequently, the strontium present in nature is the sum of that present when the earth was created plus the daughter product from the decay of 87Rb. Variation in the relative abundance of 87Sr is usually expressed using 87Sr/86Sr ratios, since 86Sr is an isotope with a constant abundance.

Measurement Techniques (return to top)

The Sr ratios of natural waters are controlled in large part by rock-water interactions. Chemical reactions such as ion exchange and mineral dissolution determine the Sr isotopic value of the fluid, and mineral precipitation affects the Sr concentration. Sr is normally reported as the absolute 87Sr/86Sr ratio. However, like many other isotopes, variation in the Sr isotope system can be expressed using delta notation:

where the 87Sr/86Sr ratio of seawater is the typical standard used.

Analysis of 87Sr/86Sr ratios is done by thermal ionization mass spectrometry, an important method for analysis of elements that are not easily converted to a gas.

(See the TIMS page for more information)

Hydrological Applications (return to top)

The 87Sr/86Sr ratio is a useful indicator in groundwater studies of source water/rock interactions. However, the kinetics of chemical reactions and mineral precipitation must be taken into account. A large number of mineral phases can affect the 87Sr/86Sr values in the water phase. Different minerals release Sr at different rates and may have different 87Sr/86Sr ratios. Flow rate and flow path are other important factors to consider when attempting to interpret the 87Sr/86Sr value of any groundwater sample (McNutt 2000).

Sr closely mimics the behavior of Ca2+, for example substituting for Ca2+ in the lattices of minerals and replacing Ca in the cell walls of plants and animals. Because of this, Sr isotope ratios are useful to trace Ca sources and cycling in oceans, watersheds, and ecosystems.

Sr isotopic analysis has some appreciable advantages:

  • Sr does not fractionate appreciably during chemical reactions (including phase changes, chemical and biological processes, etc.); hence, measured Sr ratios are good indicators of the original source of Sr. Furthermore, Sr isotope analysis uses the 88Sr/86Sr ratio, which is constant, as an internal standard to correct for fractionation during measurement. Thus, even if fractionation naturally did occur it would be corrected during measurement.

  • The atmospheric concentration of Sr is very low, so there is little risk of any atmospheric contamination to a given Sr ratio and, therefore, no atmospheric correction is required.

The 87Sr/86Sr ratio analysis can be used:

  • to obtain information on the provenance of a water
  • to determine mixing relationships within bodies of water
  • by measuring the 87Sr/86Sr ratio of lake sediments, to determine the changes in the source history of a drainage or watershed
  • to determine controls on source contributions to water bodies
  • to trace nutrient pathways and availability of nutrient pools in ecosystems
  • to fingerprint and quantify the sources of salinity in river systems (See SAHRA's project on the Solute Balance of the Rio Grande).
  • to indicate preferential flowpaths within groundwater systems (See Johnson et al. abstract)

References and further reading (return to top)

  • Benson, L., and Z. Peterman, Carbonate deposition, Pyramid Lake subbasin, Nevada: 3. The use of 87Sr values in carbonate deposits (tufas) to determine the hydrologic state of paleolake systems, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 119, 201-213, 1995.

  • Bouchard, D.P., D.S. Kaufman, A. Hochberg, and J. Quade, Quaternary history of the Thatcher Basin, Idaho, reconstructed from the 87Sr/86Sr and amino acid composition of lacustrine fossils: implications for the diversion of the Bear River into the Bonneville Basin, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 141, 95-114, 1998.

  • Clark, I., and P. Fritz, Environmental Isotopes in Hydrogeology, Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, 1997.

  • English, N.B., J. Quade, P.G. DeCelles and C.N. Garzione, Geologic control of Sr and major element chemistry in Himalayan Rivers, Nepal, Geochimica et. Cosm. Acta, 64, 2549-2566, 2000.

  • Faure, G., Principles of Isotope Geology, 2nd ed., John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1986.

  • Gosz, J.R., and D.I. Moore, Strontium isotope studies of atmospheric inputs to forested watersheds in New Mexico, Biogeochemistry, 8, 115-134, 1989.

  • Graustein, W.C., and R.L. Armstrong, The use of strontium-87/strontium-86 ratios to measure atmospheric transport into forested watersheds, Science, 219, 289-293, 1983.

  • Jones, L.M. and G. Faure, Strontium isotope geochemistry of Great Salt Lake, Utah, Geo. Society of Amer.Bulletin, 83, 1875-1880, 1972.

  • Kendall, C., and J.J. McDonnell, editors, Isotope Tracers in Catchment Hydrology, Elsevier, NY, 1998.

  • Mazor, E., Applied Chemical and Isotopic Groundwater Hydrology, Halsted Press, 1991.

  • McNutt, R.H., Strontium isotopes, in Envirionmental Tracers in Subsurface Geology, ed. by P.G. Cook and A.L. Herczeg, pp. 234-260. Kluwer, Boston, 2000.

  • Miller, E.K., J.D. Blum, and A.J. Friedland, Determination of soil exchangeable-cation loss and weathering rates using Sr isotopes, (Letters to…) Nature, 362, 438-441, 1993.

  • Pedone, V.A., Negative covariance between lake volume and strontium isotope ratio in the Great Salt Lake, Utah, GSA Annual Meeting Abstracts, Session 174, p. A-389, 2000.

  • Quade, J., Strontium ratios and Lake Bonneville chronostratigraphy, Late Quaternary Paleoecology in the Bonneville Basin (Bulletin 130, Utah Geological Survey), pp. 21-23, 2000.

  • Quade, J., Strontium ratios and the origin of early Homestead Cave biota, Late Quaternary Paleoecology in the Bonneville Basin (Bulletin 130, Utah Geological Survey), pp. 44-46, 2000.

  • Walker, F.W., J.P. Parrington, and F. Feiner, Nuclides and Isotopes, 14th edition, General Electric Company, San Jose, CA, 1989.

Internet resources (return to top)

Johnson, T.M., et al, abstract of: Groundwater "fast paths" in the Snake River Plain aquifer: radiogenic isotope ratios as natural groundwater tracers, Geology, 28(10): 871-874,

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Isotope Sciences Division

University of Kansas, Isotope Geochemistry Laboratory

The Pitlab (Petrogenesis, Isotope Geology and Tectonics Laboratory), Virginia Tech

return to top


©2005 Arizona Board of Regents. Read Disclaimer.