Using SAS functions and high resolution isotope data to unravel travel time distributions in headwater catchments

Paolo Benettin (Corresponding Author), Chris Soulsby, Christian Birkel, Doerthe Tetzlaff, Gianluca Botter, Andrea Rinaldo

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96 Citations (Scopus)
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We use high resolution tracer data from an experimental site to test theoretical approaches that integrate catchment-scale flow and transport processes in a unified framework centered on selective age sampling by streamflow and evapotranspiration fluxes. Transport processes operating at the catchment scale are reflected in the evolving residence time distribution of the catchment water storage and in the age-selection operated by out-fluxes. Such processes are described here through StorAge Selection (SAS) functions parametrized as power laws of the normalized rank storage. Such functions are computed through appropriate solution of the master equation defining formally the evolution of residence and travel times. By representing the way in which catchment storage generates outflows composed by water of different ages, the main mechanism regulating the tracer composition of runoff is clearly identified and detailed comparison with empirical data sets are possible. Properly calibrated numerical tools provide simulations that convincingly reproduce complex measured signals of daily deuterium content in stream waters during wet and dry periods. Results for the catchment under consideration are consistent with other recent studies indicating a tendency for natural catchments to preferentially release younger available water. The study shows that power-law SAS functions prove a powerful tool to explain catchment-scale transport processes that also has potential in less intensively monitored sites.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1864–1878
Number of pages15
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number3
Early online date3 Mar 2017
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2017

Bibliographical note

Acknowledgments. We are grateful to the European Research Council (ERC) VeWa project (GA335910) and NERC/JIP SIWA project (NE/MO19896/1) for funding. A.R. acknowledges the financial support from the ENAC school at EPFL. C.B. acknowledges support from the University of Costa Rica (project 217-B4-239 and the Isotope Network for Tropical Ecosystem Studies (ISONet)). Data to support this study are provided by the Northern Rivers Institute, University of Aberdeen and are available by the authors. The authors wish to thank Ype van der Velde, Arash Massoudieh, Jean-Raynald de Dreuzy and an anonymous referee for the useful review comments.


  • water age
  • travel time distributions
  • Bruntland Burn
  • SAS function
  • isotope
  • catchment-scale


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