Illuminating hydrological processes at the soil-vegetation-atmosphere interface with water stable isotopes

Matthias Sprenger, Hannes Leistert, Katharina Gimbel, Markus Weiler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

354 Citations (Scopus)
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Water stable isotopes (18O and 2H) are widely used as ideal tracers to track water through the soil and to separate evaporation from transpiration. Due to the technical developments in the last two decades, soil water stable isotope data have become easier to collect. Thus, the application of isotope methods in soils is growing rapidly. Studies that make use of soil water stable isotopes often have a multidisciplinary character since an interplay of processes that take place in the vadose zone have to be considered. In this review, we provide an overview of the hydrological processes that alter the soil water stable isotopic composition and present studies utilizing pore water stable isotopes. The processes that are discussed include the water input as precipitation or throughfall, the output as evaporation, transpiration, or recharge, and specific flow and transport processes. Based on the review and supported by additional data and modeling results, we pose a different view on the recently proposed two water world hypothesis. As an alternative to two distinct pools of soil water, where one pool is enriched in heavy isotopes and used by the vegetation and the other pool does not undergo isotopic fractionation and becomes recharge, the water gets successively mixed with newly introduced rainwater during the percolation process. This way, water initially isotopically enriched in the topsoil loses the fractionation signal with increasing infiltration depth, leading to unfractionated isotopic signals in the groundwater.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)674–704
Number of pages31
JournalReviews of Geophysics
Issue number3
Early online date17 Sept 2016
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2016

Bibliographical note

Funded by DFG research project “From Catchments as Organised Systems to Models based on Functional Units” (FOR 1


  • Stable isotopes
  • isotope hydrology
  • Vadose zone
  • plant-soil interaction
  • stable isotope hydrology
  • catchment hydrology
  • soils hydrology
  • ecohydrology


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