The stable isotope ratios of oxygen and hydrogen in polar ice cores are known to record environmental change, and they have been widely used as a paleothermometer. Although it is known to be a simplification, the relationship is often explained by invoking a single condensation pathway with progressive distillation to the temperature at the location of the ice core. In reality, the physical factors are complicated, and recent studies have identified robust aspects of the hydrologic cycle’s response to climate change that could influence the isotope-temperature relationship. In this study, we introduce a new zonal-mean isotope model derived from radiative transfer theory, and incorporate it into a recently developed moist energy balance climate model (MEBM), thus providing an internally consistent representation of the tight physical coupling between temperature, hydrology, and isotope ratios in the zonal-mean climate. The isotope model reproduces the observed pattern of meteoric
δ18O in the modern climate, and allows us to evaluate the relative importance of different processes for the temporal correlation between δ18O and temperature at high latitudes. We find that the positive temporal correlation in polar ice cores is predominantly a result of suppressed high-latitude evaporation with cooling, rather than local temperature changes. The same mechanism also explains the difference in the strength of the isotope-temperature relationship between Greenland and Antarctica.