Articles | Volume 18, issue 5
Research article
20 May 2014
Research article |  | 20 May 2014

Continual in situ monitoring of pore water stable isotopes in the subsurface

T. H. M. Volkmann and M. Weiler

Abstract. Stable isotope signatures provide an integral fingerprint of origin, flow paths, transport processes, and residence times of water in the environment. However, the full potential of stable isotopes to quantitatively characterize subsurface water dynamics is yet unfolded due to the difficulty in obtaining extensive, detailed, and repeated measurements of pore water in the unsaturated and saturated zone. This paper presents a functional and cost-efficient system for non-destructive continual in situ monitoring of pore water stable isotope signatures with high resolution. Automatic controllable valve arrays are used to continuously extract diluted water vapor in soil air via a branching network of small microporous probes into a commercial laser-based isotope analyzer. Normalized liquid-phase isotope signatures are then obtained based on a specific on-site calibration approach along with basic corrections for instrument bias and temperature dependent isotopic fractionation. The system was applied to sample depth profiles on three experimental plots with varied vegetation cover in southwest Germany. Two methods (i.e., based on advective versus diffusive vapor extraction) and two modes of sampling (i.e., using multiple permanently installed probes versus a single repeatedly inserted probe) were tested and compared. The results show that the isotope distribution along natural profiles could be resolved with sufficiently high accuracy and precision at sampling intervals of less than four minutes. The presented in situ approaches may thereby be used interchangeably with each other and with concurrent laboratory-based direct equilibration measurements of destructively collected samples. It is thus found that the introduced sampling techniques provide powerful tools towards a detailed quantitative understanding of dynamic and heterogeneous shallow subsurface and vadose zone processes.