Travel times in the unsaturated zone are notoriously difficult to assess. Travel time tracers relying on the conservative transport of dissolved (noble) gases (tritium-helium, CFCs or SF6) are not applicable. Large water volume requirements of other cosmogenic radioactive isotopes (sulfur-35, sodium-22) preclude application in the unsaturated zone. Prior investigations have relied on models, introduced tracers, profiles of stable isotopes or tritium, or a combination of these techniques. Significant unsaturated zone travel times (UZTT) complicate the interpretation of stream water travel time tracers by ranked StorAge Selection (rSAS) functions. Close examination of rSAS functions in a sloping soil lysimeter show the effect of the UZTT on the shape of the rSAS cumulative distribution function.
We studied the UZTT at the Southern Sierra Critical Zone Observatory (SS-CZO) using profiles of tritium and stable isotopes (18O and 2H) in the unsaturated zone, supported by soil water content data. Tritium analyses require 100-500 mL of soil water and therefore large soil samples (1-5L), and elaborate laboratory procedures (oven drying, degassing and noble gas mass spectrometry). The high seasonal and interannual variability in precipitation of the Mediterranean climate, variable snow pack and high annual ET/P ratios lead to a dynamic hydrology in the deep unsaturated soils and regolith and highly variable travel time distributions. Variability of the tritium concentration in precipitation further complicates direct age estimates.
Observed tritium profiles (>3 m deep) are interpreted in terms of advective and dispersive vertical transport of the input variability and radioactive decay of tritium. Significant unsaturated zone travel times corroborate previously observed low activities of short-lived cosmogenic radioactive nuclides in stream water. Under these conditions, incorporating the UZTT is critical to adequately reconstruct stream water travel time distributions.
Visser, A.; Thaw, M.; Van Der Velde, Y. (2017): Investigating Unsaturated Zone Travel Times with Tritium and Stable Isotopes. Fall Meeting, American Geophysical Union, December 2017. Abstract H23E1729..