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Hydrology and Earth System Sciences An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
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Volume 22, issue 7
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 22, 3965-3981, 2018
© Author(s) 2018. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 22, 3965-3981, 2018
© Author(s) 2018. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Research article 20 Jul 2018

Research article | 20 Jul 2018

Water ages in the critical zone of long-term experimental sites in northern latitudes

Matthias Sprenger1, Doerthe Tetzlaff2,3,1, Jim Buttle4, Hjalmar Laudon5, and Chris Soulsby1 Matthias Sprenger et al.
  • 1Northern Rivers Institute, School of Geosciences, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, UK
  • 2Department of Geography, Humboldt University Berlin, Berlin, Germany
  • 3IGB Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, Berlin, Germany
  • 4School of the Environment, Trent University, Ontario, Canada
  • 5Department of Forest Ecology and Management, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Umeå, Sweden

Abstract. As northern environments undergo intense changes due to a warming climate and altered land use practices, there is an urgent need for improved understanding of the impact of atmospheric forcing and vegetation on water storage and flux dynamics in the critical zone. We therefore assess the age dynamics of water stored in the upper 50cm of soil, and in evaporation, transpiration, or recharge fluxes at four soil–vegetation units of podzolic soils in the northern latitudes with either heather or tree vegetation (Bruntland Burn in Scotland, Dorset in Canada, and Krycklan in Sweden). We derived the age dynamics with the physically based SWIS (Soil Water Isotope Simulator) model, which has been successfully used to simulate the hydrometric and isotopic dynamics in the upper 50cm of soils at the study sites. The modelled subsurface was divided into interacting fast and slow flow domains. We tracked each day's infiltrated water through the critical zone and derived forward median travel times (which show how long the water takes to leave the soil via evaporation, transpiration, or recharge), and median water ages (to estimate the median age of water in soil storage or the evaporation, transpiration, and recharge fluxes). Resulting median travel times were time-variant, mainly governed by major recharge events during snowmelt in Dorset and Krycklan or during the wetter winter conditions in Bruntland Burn. Transpiration travel times were driven by the vegetation growth period with the longest travel times (200 days) for waters infiltrated in early dormancy and the shortest travel times during the vegetation period. However, long tails of the travel time distributions in evaporation and transpiration revealed that these fluxes comprised waters older than 100 days. At each study site, water ages of soil storage, evaporation, transpiration, and recharge were all inversely related to the storage volume of the critical zone: water ages generally decreased exponentially with increasing soil water storage. During wet periods, young soil waters were more likely to be evapotranspired and recharged than during drier periods. While the water in the slow flow domain showed long-term seasonal dynamics and generally old water ages, the water ages of the fast flow domain were generally younger and much flashier. Our results provide new insights into the mixing and transport processes of soil water in the upper layer of the critical zone, which is relevant for hydrological modelling at the plot to catchment scales as the common assumption of a well-mixed system in the subsurface holds for neither the evaporation, transpiration, or recharge.

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Short summary
We estimated water ages in the upper critical zone with a soil physical model (SWIS) and found that the age of water stored in the soil, as well as of water leaving the soil via evaporation, transpiration, or recharge, was younger the higher soil water storage (inverse storage effect). Travel times of transpiration and evaporation were different. We conceptualized the subsurface into fast and slow flow domains and the water was usually half as young in the fast as in the slow flow domain.
We estimated water ages in the upper critical zone with a soil physical model (SWIS) and found...