• 13C-excess;
  • carbonate;
  • covariation;
  • lakes;
  • paleoelevation;
  • stable isotopes

[1] Stable isotope-based proxy methods enhance our ability to interpret geodynamical histories for tectonic provinces via paleoelevational reconstructions. These methods require that the unmodified isotopic composition of meteoric water is recorded by authigenic minerals, a critical assumption that has not been tested across wide-ranging environmental and topographical contexts. Here, we show that Quaternary lake carbonateδ18O values are not strongly, nor significantly, correlated with regional elevation due to the isotopic modification of in-flow waters following entry into the lake environment. These modifications are largely caused by surface water evaporation, and can result in >3 km errors in paleoelevation estimates if not accounted for. However, our analysis suggests that positive shifts in surface waterδ18O are accompanied by similar magnitude shifts in δ13C-DIC. This positive co-variation inδ18O and δ13C may be used to detrend lake carbonate compositions for the effects of surface water evaporation using a parameter we define here as the ‘13C-excess’. When Tibetan lakes are excluded from the data set,13C-excess values are significantly correlated with mean up-slope hypsometric altitude with an error of ±500 m. Application of the13C-excess approach to Cenozoic lake carbonate records from the western U.S. Cordillera both challenges and reinforces previous paleoelevational interpretations based onδ18O alone.