Do time-variable tracers aid the evaluation of hydrological model structure? A multi-model approach

Hilary McMillan, Doerthe Tetzlaff, Martyn Clark, Christopher Soulsby

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

82 Citations (Scopus)


In this paper we explore the use of time-variable tracer data as a complementary tool for model structure evaluation. We augment the modular rainfall-runoff modelling framework FUSE (Framework for Understanding Structural Errors) with the ability to track the age distribution of water in all model stores and fluxes. We therefore gain the novel ability to compare tracer/water age signatures measured in a catchment with those predicted using hydrological models built from components based on 4 existing popular models. Key modelling decisions available in FUSE are evaluated against streamflow tracer dynamics using weekly observations of tracer concentration which reflect the tracer Transit Time Distribution (TTD). Model structure choice is shown to have a significant effect on simulated water age characteristics, even when simulated flow series are very similar. We show that for a Scottish case study catchment, careful selection of model structure enables good predictions of both streamflow and tracer dynamics. We then use FUSE as a hypothesis testing tool to understand how different model characterisation of TTDs and MTTs affect multi-criteria model performance. We demonstrate the importance of time-variation in TTDs in simulating water movement along fast flow pathways, and investigate sensitivity of the models to assumptions about our ability to sample fast, near-surface flow.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberW05501
Number of pages18
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number5
Early online date1 May 2012
Publication statusPublished - May 2012


  • mean transit time
  • model diagnostic
  • model structure
  • multi-model
  • time domain tracer
  • transit time distribution


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