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

Matthias Sprenger, Doerthe Tetzlaff*, Jim Buttle, Hjalmar Laudon, Chris Soulsby

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Citations (Scopus)
6 Downloads (Pure)


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 50 cm 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 50 cm 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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3965-3981
Number of pages17
JournalHydrology and Earth System Sciences
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 20 Jul 2018




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