Travel times in the vadose zone: Variability in space and time

Matthias Sprenger, Stefan Seeger, Theresa Blume, Markus Weiler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

88 Citations (Scopus)
14 Downloads (Pure)


Water travel times reflect hydrological processes, yet we know little about how travel times in the unsaturated zone vary with time. Using the soil physical model HYDRUS-1D we derived time variable travel time distributions for 35 study sites within the Attert catchment in Luxembourg. While all sites experience similar climatic forcing, they differ with regard to soil types (16 Cambisols, 12 Arenosols, and 7 Stagnosols) and the vegetation cover (29 forest, 6 grassland). We estimated site specific water flow and transport parameters by fitting the model simulations to observed soil moisture time series and depth profiles of pore water stable isotopes. With the calibrated model we tracked the water parcels introduced with each rainfall event over a period of several years. Our results show that the median travel time of water from the soil surface to depths down to 200 cm is mainly driven by the subsequent rainfall amounts. The median time until precipitation is taken up by roots is governed by the seasonality of evapotranspiration rates. The ratio between the amount of water that leaves the soil profile by on the one hand and evaporation and transpiration on the other hand also shows an annual cycle. This time variable response due to climatic forcing is furthermore visible in the multi-modal nature of the site specific master transit time distribution representing the flow averaged probability density for rain water to become recharge. The spatial variability of travel times is mainly driven by soil texture and structure, with significant longer travel times for the clayey Stagnosols than for the loamy to sandy Cambisols and Arenosols.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5727–5754
Number of pages28
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number8
Early online date3 Jun 2016
Publication statusPublished - 5 Aug 2016


  • Vadose zone
  • Modeling
  • Soils
  • Catchment
  • Stable isotopes


Dive into the research topics of 'Travel times in the vadose zone: Variability in space and time'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this