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Volume 22, issue 7 | Copyright
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 22, 3841-3861, 2018
https://doi.org/10.5194/hess-22-3841-2018
© Author(s) 2018. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Research article 19 Jul 2018

Research article | 19 Jul 2018

Sensitivity of young water fractions to hydro-climatic forcing and landscape properties across 22 Swiss catchments

Jana von Freyberg1,2, Scott T. Allen1, Stefan Seeger3, Markus Weiler3, and James W. Kirchner1,2 Jana von Freyberg et al.
  • 1Department of Environmental Systems Science, ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
  • 2Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), Birmensdorf, Switzerland
  • 3Faculty of Environment and Natural Resources, University of Freiburg, Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany

Abstract. The young water fraction Fyw, defined as the proportion of catchment outflow younger than approximately 2–3 months, can be estimated directly from the amplitudes of seasonal cycles of stable water isotopes in precipitation and streamflow. Thus, Fyw may be a useful metric in catchment inter-comparison studies that investigate landscape and hydro-climatic controls on streamflow generation. Here, we explore how Fyw varies with catchment characteristics and climatic forcing, using an extensive isotope data set from 22 small- to medium-sized (0.7–351km2) Swiss catchments. We find that flow-weighting the tracer concentrations in streamwater resulted in roughly 26% larger young water fractions compared to the corresponding unweighted values, reflecting the fact that young water fractions tend to be larger when catchments are wet and discharge is correspondingly higher. However, flow-weighted and unweighted young water fractions are strongly correlated with each other among the catchments. They also correlate with terrain, soil, and land-use indices, as well as with mean precipitation and measures of hydrologic response. Within individual catchments, young water fractions increase with discharge, indicating an increase in the proportional contribution of faster flow paths at higher flows. We present a new method to quantify the discharge sensitivity of Fyw, which we estimate as the linear slope of the relationship between the young water fraction and flow. Among the 22 catchments, discharge sensitivities of Fyw are highly variable and only weakly correlated with Fyw itself, implying that these two measures reflect catchment behaviour differently. Based on strong correlations between the discharge sensitivity of Fyw and several catchment characteristics, we suggest that low discharge sensitivities imply greater persistence in the proportions of fast and slow runoff flow paths as catchment wetness changes. In contrast, high discharge sensitivities imply the activation of different dominant flow paths during precipitation events, such as when subsurface water tables rise into more permeable layers and/or the river network expands further into the landscape.

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We explored how the fraction of streamflow younger than ca. 3 months (Fyw) varies with landscape characteristics and climatic forcing, using an extensive isotope data set from 22 Swiss catchments. Overall, Fyw tends to be larger when catchments are wet and discharge is correspondingly higher, indicating an increase in the proportional contribution of faster flow paths at higher flows. We quantify this discharge sensitivity of Fyw and relate it to the dominant streamflow-generating mechanisms.
We explored how the fraction of streamflow younger than ca. 3 months (Fyw) varies with landscape...
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