Conceptualization of runoff processes using a geographical information system and tracers in a nested mesoscale catchment

Doerthe Tetzlaff, Christopher Soulsby, S. Waldron, I. A. Malcolm, P. J. Bacon, S. M. Dunn, A. Lilly, A. F. Youngson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

166 Citations (Scopus)


Tracer investigations were combined with a geographical information system (GIS) analysis of the 31 km(2) Girnock catchment (Cairngorm Mountains, Scotland) in order to understand hydrological functioning by identifying dominant runoff sources and estimating mean residence times. The catchment has a complex geology, soil cover and topography. Gran alkalinity was used to demonstrate that catchment geology has a dominant influence on baseflow chemistry, but flow paths originating in acidic horizons in the upper soil profiles controlled stormflow alkalinity. Chemically based hydrograph separations at the catchment scale indicated that similar to 30% of annual runoff was derived from groundwater sources. Similar contributions (23-36%) were estimated for virtually all major sub-basins. delta O-18 of precipitation (mean: -9.4%o; range: -16.1 to -5.0%) and stream waters (mean: -9.1%; range: -11.6 to -7.4%) were used to assess mean catchment and sub-basin residence times, which were in the order similar to 4-6 months. GIS analysis showed that these tracer-based diagnostic features of catchment functioning were consistent with the landscape organization of the catchment. Soil and HOST (Hydrology of Soil Type) maps indicated that the catchment and individual sub-basins were dominated by hydrologically responsive soils, such as peats (Histosol), peaty gleys (Histic Gleysols) and rankers (Umbric Leptosols and Histosols). Soil cover (in combination with a topographic index) predicted extensive areas of saturation that probably expand during hydrological events, thus providing a high degree of hydrological connectivity between catchment hillslopes and stream channel network. This was validated by aerial photographic interpretation and groundtruthing. These characteristics of hydrological functioning (i.e. dominance of responsive hydrological pathways and short residence times) dictate that the catchment is sensitive to land use change impacts on the quality and quantity of streamflows. It is suggested that such conceptualization of hydrological functioning using tracer-validated GIS analysis can play an important role in the sustainable management of river basins.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1289-1307
Number of pages19
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number10
Early online date12 Oct 2006
Publication statusPublished - 15 May 2007


  • dominant runoff processes
  • environmental tracers
  • geographical information system
  • HOST classification
  • isotopes
  • landscape organization
  • mean residence times
  • mesoscale
  • terrain analyses
  • surface-water interactions
  • different spatial scales
  • hydrological flow paths
  • stable-isotope tracers
  • sub-Arctic catchment
  • residence times
  • hydrograph separations
  • contaminant transport
  • mharcaidh catchment
  • Scottish catchment


Dive into the research topics of 'Conceptualization of runoff processes using a geographical information system and tracers in a nested mesoscale catchment'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this