Journal article

Using SAS functions and high-resolution isotope data to unravel travel time distributions in headwater catchments

We use high-resolution tracer data from an experimental site to test theoretical approaches that integrate catchment-scale flow and transport processes in a unified framework centered on selective age sampling by streamflow and evapotranspiration fluxes. Transport processes operating at the catchment scale are reflected in the evolving residence time distribution of the catchment water storage and in the age selection operated by out-fluxes. Such processes are described here through StorAge Selection (SAS) functions parameterized as power laws of the normalized rank storage. Such functions are computed through appropriate solution of the master equation defining formally the evolution of residence and travel times. By representing the way in which catchment storage generates outflows composed by water of different ages, the main mechanism regulating the tracer composition of runoff is clearly identified and detailed comparison with empirical data sets are possible. Properly calibrated numerical tools provide simulations that convincingly reproduce complex measured signals of daily deuterium content in stream waters during wet and dry periods. Results for the catchment under consideration are consistent with other recent studies indicating a tendency for natural catchments to preferentially release younger available water. The study shows that power law SAS functions prove a powerful tool to explain catchment-scale transport processes that also has potential in less intensively monitored sites.


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