Air pressure and cosmogenic isotope production


  • John O. Stone


The cosmic ray flux increases at higher altitude as air pressure and the shielding effect of the atmosphere decrease. Altitude-dependent scaling factors are required to compensate for this effect in calculating cosmic ray exposure ages. Scaling factors in current use assume a uniform relationship between altitude and atmospheric pressure over the Earth's surface. This masks regional differences in mean annual pressure and spatial variation in cosmogenic isotope production rates. Outside Antarctica, air pressures over land depart from the standard atmosphere by ±4.4 hPa (1σ) near sea level, corresponding to offsets of ±3–4% in isotope production rates. Greater offsets occur in regions of persistent high and low pressure such as Siberia and Iceland, where conventional scaling factors predict production rates in error by ±10%. The largest deviations occur over Antarctica where ground level pressures are 20–40 hPa lower than the standard atmosphere at all altitudes. Isotope production rates in Antarctica are therefore 25–30% higher than values calculated by scaling Northern Hemisphere production rates with conventional scaling factors. Exposure ages of old Antarctic surfaces, especially those based on cosmogenic radionuclides at levels close to saturation, may be millions of years younger than published estimates.