Storage, mixing and fluxes of water in the critical zone across northern environments inferred by stable isotopes of soil water

Matthias Sprenger* (Corresponding Author), Doerthe Tetzlaff, James Buttle, Sean K. Carey, James P. McNamara, Hjalmar Laudon, Nadine J. Shatilla, Chris Soulsby

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Quantifying soil water storage, mixing and release via recharge, transpiration and evaporation is essential for a better understanding of critical zone processes. Here, we integrate stable isotope (H and O of soil water, precipitation, and groundwater) and hydrometric (soil moisture) data from five long-term experimental catchments along a hydroclimatic gradient across northern latitudes: Dry Creek (USA), Bruntland Burn (Scotland), Dorset (Canada), Krycklan (Sweden), and Wolf Creek (Canada). Within each catchment, six to eleven isotope sampling campaigns occurred at two to four sampling locations over at least one year. Analysis for H and O in the bulk pore water was done for >2500 soil samples either by cryogenic extraction (Dry Creek) or by direct equilibration (other sites). The results showed a similar general pattern that soil water isotope variability reflected the seasonality of the precipitation input signal. However, pronounced differences among sampling locations occurred regarding the isotopic fractionation due to evaporation. We found that antecedent precipitation volumes mainly governed the fractionation signal, temperature and evaporation rates were of secondary importance, and soil moisture played only a minor role in the variability of soil water evaporation fractionation across the hydro-climatic gradient. We further observed that soil waters beneath conifer trees were more fractionated than beneath heather shrubs or red oak trees, indicating higher soil evaporation rates in coniferous forests. Sampling locations closer to streams were more damped and depleted in their stable isotopic composition than hillslope sites, revealing increased subsurface mixing towards the saturated zone and a preferential recharge of winter precipitation. Bulk soil waters generally comprised a high share of waters older than 14 days, which indicates that the water in soil pores are usually not fully replaced by recent infiltration events. The presented stable isotope data of soil water were, thus, a useful tool to track the spatial variability of water fluxes within and from the critical zone. Such data provide invaluable information to improve the representation of critical zone processes in spatially-distributed hydrological models.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1720-1737
Number of pages18
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number12
Early online date1 Jun 2018
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jun 2018

Bibliographical note

We thank Audrey Innes for isotope analysis at University of Aberdeen for Bruntland Burn and Krycklan sites, Johannes Tiwari (SLU) for isotope sampling in Krycklan, Pernilla Löfvenius (SLU) for providing PET data for Krycklan (via SITES), and Jeff McDonnell and Kim Janzen (University of Saskatchewan) for soil water isotope analysis for the Dorset and Wolf Creek sites. The Krycklan part was funded by the KAW Branch-Point project. We acknowledge the funding from the European Research Council (ERC, project GA 335910 VeWa). We thank the Editor and three anonymous reviewers for their critical comments during the peer-review process.


  • stable isotopes
  • soil hydrology
  • fractionation
  • Northern Environments
  • evaporation
  • Critical Zone


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