Using high resolution tracer data to constrain water storage, flux and age estimates in a spatially distributed rainfall-runoff model

M. H. J. van Huijgevoort, D. Tetzlaff, E. H. Sutanudjaja, C. Soulsby

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

69 Citations (Scopus)
6 Downloads (Pure)


Models simulating stream flow and conservative tracers can provide a representation of flow paths, storage distributions and mixing processes that is advantageous for many predictive purposes. Compared with models that only simulate stream flow, tracer data can be used to investigate the internal consistency of model behaviour and to gain insight into model performance. Here, we examine the strengths and weaknesses of a data-driven, spatially distributed tracer-aided rainfall-runoff model. The model structure allowed us to assess the influence of landscape characteristics on the routing and mixing of water and tracers. The model was applied to a site in the Scottish Highlands with a unique tracer data set; ~4 years of daily isotope ratios in stream water and precipitation were available, as well as 2 years of weekly soil and ground water isotopes. The model structure was based on an empirically based, lumped tracer-aided model previously developed for the catchment. The best model runs were selected from Monte Carlo simulations based on dual calibration criteria using objective functions for both stream isotopes and discharge at the outlet. Model performance for these criteria was reasonable (Nash–Sutcliffe efficiencies for discharge and isotope ratios were ~0.4–0.6). The model could generally reproduce the variable isotope signals in the soils of the steeper hill slopes where storage was low, and damped isotope responses in valley bottom cells with high storage. The model also allowed us to estimate the age distributions of internal stores, water fluxes and stream flow. Average stream water age was ~1.6 years, integrating older groundwater in the valley bottom and dynamic younger soil waters. By tracking water ages and simulating isotopes, the model captured the changes in connectivity driven by distributed storage dynamics. This has substantially improved the representation of spatio-temporal process dynamics and gives a more robust framework for projecting environmental change impacts.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4761-4778
Number of pages18
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number25
Early online date21 Jun 2016
Publication statusPublished - 15 Dec 2016

Bibliographical note


The authors would like to thank Jonathan Dick, Josie Geris, Jason Lessels and Claire Tunaley for data collection and Audrey Innes for lab sample preparation. We also thank Christian Birkel for discussions about the model structure and comments on an earlier draft of the paper. Climatic data were provided by Iain Malcolm and Marine Scotland Fisheries at the Freshwater Lab, Pitlochry. Additional precipitation data were provided by the UK Meteorological Office and the British Atmospheric Data Centre (BADC). We thank the European Research Council ERC (project GA 335910 VEWA) for funding the VeWa project.


  • isotopes
  • tracer-aided modelling
  • runoff processes
  • hydrological modelling


Dive into the research topics of 'Using high resolution tracer data to constrain water storage, flux and age estimates in a spatially distributed rainfall-runoff model'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this