While a lot is now known about catchment behavior of many study sites around the world, the ability to generalize these findings for predictions in unmonitored sites remains difficult. This is largely due to the fact that the link between climate, hydrologic response and how the landscape is structured is poorly understood. Notwithstanding, such understanding is fundamental to advancing new hydrological theory and useful model structures that can be used in ungauged sites. In this paper we will present a theoretical framework based on open systems thermodynamics to study catchment evolution. This framework is referred to as Environmental Energy and Mass Transfer (EEMT) and relates long-term energy and mass fluxes through the catchment to its internal structure and functioning. We will illustrate this concept using recent results from field investigations in two semi-arid environments in southwest USA:, the Valles Caldera National Preserve (VCNP) near Los Alamos, NM and the Santa Catalina Mountains (SCM) near Tucson, AZ. In VCNP we have designed an experiment that involves calculating transit times for a number of catchments that drain from a large dome called Redondo Peak. These catchments have different orientations and therefore receive different amounts of solar radiation. In general, we found that there was a correlation between mean transit times and aspect for these streams. At the same time, other topographic characteristics, which are typically considered as controls over catchment mean transit times, such as catchment area, elevation, and the ratio of flowpath length to slope gradient, exhibit limited predictive power with respect to mean transit times. The relationship between mean transit times and aspect suggests that in the Valles Caldera, transit times might be affected by a variety of features that are influenced by aspect, such as slope steepness, vegetation patterns, and soil depth. In SCM we have monitored the hydrological response in two hillslopes since 2006 using an array of hydrometric and hydrochemical instruments, in an attempt to estimate the mean transit time of water in those hillslopes. The two hillslope are different in their lithology (granite versus schist) and plan form (oval versus V-shaped), but receive on average the same amount of energy because they are both north facing. We find that the granite-oval hillslope has a mean transit time 5 times shorter than the schist-V-shaped hillslope. The parent material and the prevailing climate are responsible for very different soil characteristics and thus storage capacities, leading to important differences in transit time distributions, illustrating how geology leaves fingerprints on catchment’s evolution.
Troch, P.A., Rasmussen, C., Broxton, P.D., Heidbuechel, I. (2010): Environmental Energy and Mass Transfer: Key to Understanding Catchment Evolution. AGU Fall Meeting (Invited) Abstract H32B-01..