Cosmogenic Isotopes Unravel the Hydrochronology and Water Storage Dynamics of the Southern Sierra Critical Zone

A. Visser*, M. Thaw, A. Deinhart, R. Bibby, M. Safeeq, M. Conklin, B. Esser, Y. Van der Velde

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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One of the principal questions in hydrology is how and when water leaves the critical zone storage as either stream flow or evapotranspiration. We investigated subsurface water storage and storage selection of the Southern Sierra Critical Zone Observatory (California, USA) within the age-ranked storage selection framework, constrained by a novel combination of cosmogenic radioactive and stable isotopes: tritium, sodium-22, sulfur-35, and oxygen-18. We found a significant positive correlation between tritium and stream flow rate and between sulfur-35 and stream flow rate, indicating that the age distribution of stream flow varies with stream flow rate. Storage selection functions that vary with stream flow rate are better able to reproduce tritium concentrations in stream flow than functions that are constant in time. For the Southern Sierra Critical Zone, there is a strong preference to discharge the oldest water in storage during dry conditions but only a weak preference for younger water during wet conditions. The preference of evapotranspiration for younger water, constrained by oxygen-18 in stream water, is essential to parameterize subsurface storage but needs to be confirmed by isotopic or other investigations of evapotranspiration. This is the first study to illustrate how a combination of cosmogenic radioactive isotopes reveals the hydrochronology and water storage dynamics of catchments, constrains the subsurface architecture of the critical zone, and provides insight into landscape evolution.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1429-1450
Number of pages22
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number2
Early online date29 Jan 2019
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2019


  • Hydrochronology
  • Oxygen-18
  • Sodium-22
  • Storage Selection Functions
  • Sulfur-35
  • Tritium


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