Multimodal water age distributions and the challenge of complex hydrological landscapes

Nicolas B. Rodriguez, Paolo Benettin, Julian Klaus
Travel time distributions (TTDs) are concise descriptions of transport processes in catchments based on water ages, and they are particularly efficient as lumped hydrological models to simulate tracers in outflows. Past studies have approximated catchment TTDs with unimodal probability distribution functions (pdf) and have successfully simulated tracers in outflows with those. However, intricate flow paths and contrasting water velocities observed in complex hydrological systems may generate
more » ... ems may generate multimodal age distributions. This study explores the occurrence of multimodal age distributions in hydrological systems and investigates the consequences of multimodality for tracer transport. Lumped models based on TTDs of varying complexity (unimodal and multimodal) are used to simulate tracers in the discharge of hydrological systems under well-known conditions. Specifically, we simulate tracer data from a controlled lysimeter irrigation experiment showing a multimodal response and we provide results from a virtual catchment-scale experiment testing the ability of a unimodal age distribution to simulate a known and more complex multimodal age system. Models are based on composite StorAge Selection functions, defined as weighted sums of pdfs, which allow a straightforward implementation of uni-or multi-modal age distributions while accounting for unsteady conditions. These two experiments show that simple unimodal models provide satisfactory simulations of a given tracer, but they fail in reproducing processes occurring at different temporal scales. Multimodal distributions, instead, can better capture the detailed dynamics embedded in the observations. We conclude that experimental knowledge of flow paths and the systematic use of data from multiple, independent tracers can be used to validate the assumption of water age unimodality. Multimodal age distributions are more likely to emerge in landscapes where the distributions of flow path lengths and/or water velocities are themselves multimodal. In general, age multimodality may not be particularly pronounced and detectable, unless comparable amounts of water with contrasting ages reach a given outflow. K E Y W O R D S hydrological tracer, lumped model, multimodal distribution, StorAge Selection function, travel time, water age distribution, water chemistry, water velocity
doi:10.5445/ir/1000119293 fatcat:7iyxwqbyz5aktnisghczhgzemu