Articles | Volume 20, issue 12
Research article
01 Dec 2016
Research article |  | 01 Dec 2016

Contrasting transit times of water from peatlands and eucalypt forests in the Australian Alps determined by tritium: implications for vulnerability and the source of water in upland catchments

Ian Cartwright and Uwe Morgenstern

Abstract. Peatlands are a distinctive and important component of many upland regions that commonly contain distinctive flora and fauna which are different from those of adjacent forests and grasslands. Peatlands also represent a significant long-term store of organic carbon. While their environmental importance has long since been recognised, water transit times within peatlands are not well understood. This study uses tritium (3H) to estimate the mean transit times of water from peatlands and from adjacent gullies that contain eucalypt forests in the Victorian Alps (Australia). The 3H activities of the peatland water range from 2.7 to 3.3 tritium units (TUs), which overlap the measured (2.9 to 3.0 TU) and expected (2.8 to 3.2 TU) average 3H activities of rainfall in this region. Even accounting for seasonal recharge by rainfall with higher 3H activities, the mean transit times of the peatland waters are < 6.5 years and may be less than 2 years. Water from adjacent eucalypt forest streams has 3H activities of 1.6 to 2.1 TU, implying much longer mean transit times of 5 to 29 years. Cation ∕ Cl and Si ∕ Cl ratios are higher in the eucalypt forest streams than the peatland waters and both of these water stores have higher cation ∕ Cl and Si ∕ Cl ratios than rainfall. The major ion geochemistry reflects the degree of silicate weathering in these catchments that is controlled by both transit times and aquifer lithology. The short transit times imply that, unlike the eucalypt forests, the peatlands do not represent a long-lived store of water for the local river systems. Additionally, the peatlands are susceptible to drying out during drought, which renders them vulnerable to damage by the periodic bushfires that occur in this region.

Short summary
This research used tritium to determine the timescales that water is stored in peatlands and eucalyptus forest catchments in upland river systems in southeast Australia. The mean transit times in the peatland catchments of less than a few years contrast with much longer transit times (years to decades) in adjacent eucalyptus catchments. The peat is susceptible to drying which renders it vulnerable to degradation and bushfire and does not represent a long-term water store to upland streams.