An experimental application of the Periodic Tracer Hierarchy (PERTH) method to quantify time-variable water and solute transport in a sloping soil lysimeter

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Luke A Pangle1, Charlene Cardoso2, Minseok Kim3, Marco Lora4, Yadi Wang1, Peter A A Troch1 and Ciaran J Harman5, (1)University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, United States, (2)Biosphere2, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, United States, (3)Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, United States, (4)University of Padua, Padua, Italy, (5)Johns Hopkins University, Geography and Environmental Engineering, Baltimore, MD, United States
Water molecules traverse myriad flow paths and spend different lengths of time on or within the landscape before they are discharged into a stream channel. The transit-time distribution (TTD) is a probability distribution that represents the range and likelihood of transit times for water and conservative solutes within soils and catchments, and is useful for comparative analysis and prediction of solute transport into streams. The TTD has customarily been assumed to be time-invariant in practical applications, but is understood to vary due to unsteady flow rates, changes in water-balance partitioning, and shifting flow pathways. Recent theoretical advances have clarified how the distribution of transit times experienced by water and solutes within a stream channel at any moment in time is conditional on the specific series of precipitation events preceding that time.

Observations resolving how TTDs vary during a specific sequence of precipitation events could be obtained by introducing unique and conservative tracers during each event and quantifying their distinct breakthrough curves in the stream. At present, the number of distinct and conservative tracers available for this purpose is insufficient. Harman and Kim [Harman, C.J. and Kim, M., 2014, Geophysical Research Letters, 41, 1567-1575] proposed a new experimental method—based on the establishment of periodic steady-state conditions—that allows multiple overlapping breakthrough curves of non-unique tracers to be decomposed, thus enabling analysis of the distinct TTDs associated with their specific times of introduction through precipitation. We present results from one of the first physical experiments to test this methodology. Our experiment involves a sloping lysimeter (10° slope) that contains one cubic meter of crushed basalt rock (loamy sand texture), an irrigation system adaptable to controlled tracer introductions, and instruments that enable total water balance monitoring. We imposed a repeated sequence of rainfall pulses and achieved periodic-steady-state conditions over 24 days. Using systematic introductions of deuterium- and chloride-enriched water, and the PERTH method, we resolve the time-conditional TTDs associated with tracer injections that occurred during specific intervals of the overall rainfall sequence.