Articles | Volume 16, issue 2
Research article
28 Feb 2012
Research article |  | 28 Feb 2012

A porewater-based stable isotope approach for the investigation of subsurface hydrological processes

J. Garvelmann, C. Külls, and M. Weiler

Abstract. Predicting and understanding subsurface flowpaths is still a crucial issue in hydrological research. We present an experimental approach to reveal present and past subsurface flowpaths of water in the unsaturated and saturated zone. Two hillslopes in a humid mountainous catchment have been investigated. The H2O(liquid) – H2O(vapor) equilibration laser spectroscopy method was used to obtain high resolution δ2H vertical depth profiles of pore water at various points along two fall lines of a pasture hillslope in the southern Black Forest, Germany. The Porewater-based Stable Isotope Profile (PSIP) approach was developed to use the integrated information of several vertical depth profiles of deuterium along transects at the hillslope.

Different shapes of depth profiles were observed in relation to hillslope position. The statistical variability (inter-quartile range and standard deviation) of each profile was used to characterize different types of depth profiles. The profiles upslope or with a weak affinity for saturation as indicated by a low topographic wetness index preserve the isotopic input signal by precipitation with a distinct seasonal variability. These observations indicate mainly vertical movement of soil water in the upper part of the hillslope before sampling. The profiles downslope or at locations with a strong affinity for saturation do not show a similar seasonal isotopic signal. The input signal is erased in the foothills and a large proportion of pore water samples are close to the isotopic values of δ2H in streamwater during base flow conditions indicating the importance of the groundwater component in the catchment. Near the stream indications for efficient mixing of water from lateral subsurface flow paths with vertical percolation are found.