Articles | Volume 20, issue 2
Research article
17 Feb 2016
Research article |  | 17 Feb 2016

In situ unsaturated zone water stable isotope (2H and 18O) measurements in semi-arid environments: a soil water balance

Marcel Gaj, Matthias Beyer, Paul Koeniger, Heike Wanke, Josefina Hamutoko, and Thomas Himmelsbach

Abstract. Stable isotopes (deuterium, 2H, and oxygen-18, 18O) of soil water were measured in the field using a liquid water isotope analyzer (tunable off-axis integrated cavity output spectroscope, OA-ICOS, LGR) and commercially available soil gas probes (BGL-30, UMS, Munich) in the semi-arid Cuvelai–Etosha Basin (CEB), Namibia. Results support the applicability of an in situ measurement system for the determination of stable isotopes in soil pore water. High spatial and temporal resolution was achieved in the study area with reasonable accuracy and measurements were in agreement with laboratory-based cryogenic vacuum extraction and subsequent cavity ring-down laser spectroscopic isotope analysis (CRDS, L2120-i, Picarro Inc.). After drift and span correction of the in situ isotope data, precision for over 140 measurements taken during two consecutive field campaigns (June and November 2014) was 1.8 and 0.48 ‰ for δ2H and δ18O, respectively. Mean measurement trueness is determined using quality check standards and was 5 and 0.3 ‰ for δ2H and δ18O, respectively. The isotope depth profiles are used quantitatively to calculate a soil water balance. The contribution of transpiration to total evapotranspiration ranged between 72 and 92 %. Shortly after a rain event, the contribution of transpiration was much lower, at 35 to 50 %. Potential limitations of such an in situ system are related to environmental conditions which could be minimized by using a temperature-controlled chamber for the laser spectrometer. Further, the applicability of the system using previously oven-dried soil material might be limited by physicochemical soil properties (i.e., clay minerals). Uncertainty in the in situ system is suggested to be reduced by improving the calibration procedure and further studying fractionation effects influencing the isotope ratios in the soil water, especially at low water contents. Furthermore, the influence of soil-respired CO2 on isotope values within the root zone could not be deduced from the data.