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Oecologia. 2003 Jul;136(2):261-9. Epub 2003 May 21.

Source partitioning using stable isotopes: coping with too many sources.

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U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, 200 SW 35th St., Corvallis, OR 97333, USA.


Stable isotopes are increasingly being used as tracers in environmental studies. One application is to use isotopic ratios to quantitatively determine the proportional contribution of several sources to a mixture, such as the proportion of various pollution sources in a waste stream. In general, the proportional contributions of n+1 different sources can be uniquely determined by the use of n different isotope system tracers (e.g., delta13C, delta15N, delta18O) with linear mixing models based on mass balance equations. Often, however, the number of potential sources exceeds n+1, which prevents finding a unique solution of source proportions. What can be done in these situations? While no definitive solution exists, we propose a method that is informative in determining bounds for the contributions of each source. In this method, all possible combinations of each source contribution (0-100%) are examined in small increments (e.g., 1%). Combinations that sum to the observed mixture isotopic signatures within a small tolerance (e.g., +/-0.1 per thousand ) are considered to be feasible solutions, from which the frequency and range of potential source contributions can be determined. To avoid misrepresenting the results, users of this procedure should report the distribution of feasible solutions rather than focusing on a single value such as the mean. We applied this method to a variety of environmental studies in which stable isotope tracers were used to quantify the relative magnitude of multiple sources, including (1) plant water use, (2) geochemistry, (3) air pollution, and (4) dietary analysis. This method gives the range of isotopically determined source contributions; additional non-isotopic constraints specific to each study may be used to further restrict this range. The breadth of the isotopically determined ranges depends on the geometry of the mixing space and the similarity of source and mixture isotopic signatures. A sensitivity analysis indicated that the estimated ranges vary only modestly with different choices of source increment and mass balance tolerance parameter values. A computer program (IsoSource) to perform these calculations for user-specified data is available at

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