Dominant controls on catchment hydrological functions: what can we learn from biological and isotopic tracers?

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Laurent Pfister1, Julian Klaus1, Carlos E. Wetzel1, Michael K Stewart2, Jeffrey McDonnell3 and Nuria Martinez Carreras1, (1)Centre de Recherche Public - Gabriel Lippmann, EVA, Belvaux, Luxembourg, (2)GNS Science-Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences Ltd, Lower Hutt, New Zealand, (3)University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
One emerging and important control on catchment hydrological functions of water storage, mixing and release is bedrock geology. Until today, catchment-based work has been limited by small ranges of rock types in adjacent basins. Moreover, conventional hydrological tracer approaches suffer from limitations inherent to the large storages related to certain bedrock types (e.g. the damping of stable isotope tracer signatures in deep storage catchments and obliteration of output signals at larger spatial scales).

Here, we show how a multi-tracer approach, based on terrestrial diatoms and different stable and radioactive isotopic tracers can help refining our understanding of the dominant controls on catchment hydrological functions, especially the role of bedrock geology. We present new data and results from a nested catchment set-up, located in the Alzette River basin in Luxembourg (Europe). These 16 catchments (with sizes ranging from 0.47 to 285 km2) are characterized by clean and mixed assemblages of geology and land use. We have monitored these systems since 2002, including meteorological variables (precipitation, air temperature, etc.), as well as 15 minute discharge. Additional parameters have been monitored bi-weekly and at the event time scale, including geochemical and isotopic (3H, D, 18O) tracers, as well as terrestrial diatom communities in streamwater.

Our results show that water balance derived dynamic storage significantly differs across the 16 catchments and scales. Catchment mixing potential inferred from standard deviations in stream baseflow ∂D (as a proxy for the damping of isotopic signatures in precipitation), as well as tritium-derived baseflow transit times, both exhibit a significant spatial variability, but strong correlation to bedrock pemeability. Terrestrial diatom assemblages in streamwater, as a proxy for rapid flow pathway connectedness to the stream network, are highly variable across the study catchments but also show strong correlation with geology.

Our work suggests a hierarchy of controls on catchment function. Eventually, geology (namely bedrock permeability) trumps other physiographic characteristics such as land use or topography in controlling fundamental catchment functions of storage, mixing and release.