Articles | Volume 20, issue 1
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 20, 279–297, 2016
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 20, 279–297, 2016

Research article 19 Jan 2016

Research article | 19 Jan 2016

Aggregation in environmental systems – Part 1: Seasonal tracer cycles quantify young water fractions, but not mean transit times, in spatially heterogeneous catchments

J. W. Kirchner

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Cited articles

Asano, Y. and Uchida, T.: Flow path depth is the main controller of mean base flow transit times in a mountainous catchment, Water Resour. Res., 48, W03512,, 2012.
Aubert, A. H., Kirchner, J. W., Gascuel-Odoux, C., Facheux, M., Gruau, G., and Merot, P.: Fractal water quality fluctuations spanning the periodic table in an intensively farmed watershed, Environ. Sci. Technol., 48, 930–937,, 2014.
Barnes, C. J. and Bonell, M.: Application of unit hydrograph techniques to solute transport in catchments, Hydrol. Process., 10, 793–802, 1996.
Bethke, C. M. and Johnson, T. M.: Groundwater age and groundwater age dating, Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci., 36, 121–152,, 2008.
Beven, K.: On subsurface stormflow: predictions with simple kinematic theory for saturated and unsaturated flows, Water Resour. Res., 18, 1627–1633, 1982.
Short summary
Catchment mean transit times have been widely inferred from seasonal cycles of environmental tracers in precipitation and streamflow. Here I show that these cycles yield strongly biased estimates of mean transit times in spatially heterogeneous catchments (and, by implication, in real-world catchments). However, I also show that these cycles can be used to reliably estimate the fraction of "young" water in streamflow, meaning water that fell as precipitation less than roughly 2–3 months ago.