Inter-catchment comparison to assess the influence of topography and soils on catchment transit times in a geomorphic province

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A quantitative, process relevant analysis of ten mesoscale (ca 10-90 km(2)) catchments in the Cairngorm mountains, Scotland was carried out using 10-m digital terrain models (DTMs). This analysis produced a range of topographic indices that described differences in the landscape organisation of the catchments in a way that helped explain contrasts in their hydrology. Mean transit time (MTT)-derived from isotopic tracer data-was used as a metric that characterised differences in the hydrological function of the ten catchments. Some topographic indices exhibited significant correlations with MTT. Most notably, the ratio of the median flow path length to the median flow path gradient was negatively correlated with MTT, whilst the median upslope area was positively correlated. However, the relationships exhibited significant scatter which precluded their use as a predictive tool that could be applied to ungauged basins in this region. In contrast, maps of soil hydrological properties could be used to differentiate hydrologically responsive soils (which are dominated by overland flow and shallow sub-surface storm flow) from free draining soils (that facilitate deeper sub-surface flows). MTT was negatively correlated with the coverage of responsive soils in catchments. This relationship provided a much better basis for predicting MTT in ungauged catchments in this geomorphic province. In the Cairngorms, the extensive cover of various glacial drift deposits appears to be a first order control on soil distributions and strongly influences the porosity and permeability of the sub-surface. These catchment characteristics result in soil cover being a much more discerning indicator of hydrological function than topography alone. The study highlights the potential of quantitative landscape analysis in catchment comparison and the need for caution in extrapolating relationships between landscape controls and metrics of hydrological function beyond specific geomorphic provinces. Copyright (C) 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1874-1886
Number of pages13
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number13
Early online date13 May 2009
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2009


  • mean transit times
  • topography
  • soil distribution
  • landscape organisation
  • isotope tracer
  • ungauged basins
  • nested mesoscale catchment
  • stable-isotope tracers
  • mean residence time
  • landscape characteristics
  • Scottish catchment
  • runoff generation
  • surface-water
  • scale
  • groundwater
  • hydrogeochemistry


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