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Linking tracers, water age and conceptual models to identify dominant runoff processes in a sparsely monitored humid tropical catchment

Birkel, Christian, Soulsby, Chris
Hydrological processes 2016 v.30 no.24 pp. 4477-4493
dry season, evapotranspiration, hydrologic models, isotope labeling, isotopes, runoff, stream flow, streams, watersheds, wet season
Assessing catchment runoff response remains a key research frontier because of limitations in current observational techniques to fully characterize water source areas and transit times in diverse geographical environments. Here, we report a study that combines empirical data with modelling to identify dominant runoff processes in a sparsely monitored humid tropical catchment. The analysis integrated isotope tracers into conceptual rainfall–runoff models of varying complexity (from 5 to 11 calibrated parameters) that are able to simulate discharge and tracer concentrations and track the evolving age of stream water exiting the catchment. The model structures can be seen as competing hypotheses of catchment functioning and were simultaneously calibrated against uncertain streamflow gaugings and a 2‐year daily isotope rainfall–runoff record. Comparison of the models was facilitated using global parameter sensitivity analysis and the resulting effect on calibration. We show that a variety of tested model structures reproduced water and tracer dynamics in stream, but the simpler models failed to adequately reproduce both. The resulting water age distributions of the tested models varied significantly with little similarity between the stream water age and stored water age distributions. The sensitivity analysis revealed that only some of the more complex models (from eight parameters) could be better constrained to infer more plausible water age distributions and catchment storage estimates. These models indicated that the age of water stored in the catchment is generally older compared with the age of water fluxes, with evapotranspiration age being younger compared with streamflow. However, the water age distributions followed a similar temporal behaviour dominated by climatic seasonality. Stream water ages increased during the dry season (greater than 1 year) and decreased with increased streamflow (a few weeks old) during the wet season. We further show that the ratios of the streamwater age to stored water age distribution and the water age distribution of actual evapotranspiration to the stored water age distribution from constrained models could potentially serve as useful hydrological indicators of catchment functioning. Copyright © 2016 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.