Assessing land use influences on isotopic variability and stream water ages in urbanising rural catchments

Jamie Lee Stevenson*, Josie Geris, Christian Birkel, Doerthe Tetzlaff, Christopher Soulsby

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Stable water isotopes are invaluable in helping understand catchment functioning and are widely used in experimental catchments, with higher frequency data becoming increasingly common. Such datasets incur substantial logistical costs, reducing their feasibility for use by decision makers needing to understand multi-catchment, landscape-scale functioning over a relatively short period to assess the impact of proposed land use change. Instead, reconnaissance style surveys (high spatial resolution across the landscape at a lower temporal frequency, over a relatively short period) offer an alternative, complementary approach. To test if such sampling could identify heterogeneities in hydrological functioning, and associated landscape controls, we sampled 27 stream sites fortnightly for one year within a peri-urban landscape undergoing land use change. Visual examination of raw data and application of mean transit time and young water fraction models indicated urbanisation, agriculture and responsive soils caused more rapid cycling of precipitation to stream water, whereas mature forestry provided attenuation. We were also able to identify contiguous catchments which functioned fundamentally differently, meaning their response to land use alteration would also be different. This study demonstrated how stable water isotopes can be a valuable, low-cost addition to tools available for environmental decision makers by providing local, process-based information.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)277-300
JournalIsotopes in Environmental and Health Studies
Issue number3
Early online date13 May 2022
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 13 May 2022


  • hydrogen-2
  • water ages
  • Catchments
  • environmental management
  • isotope hydrology
  • land use change
  • mean transit time
  • oxygen-18
  • sampling strategies
  • urbanisation


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