Tracking water pathways in steep hillslopes by d18O depth profiles of soil water

Mueller, Matthias H.; Alaoui, Abdallah; Kuells, Christoph; Leistert, Hannes; Meusburger, Katrin; Stumpp, Christine; Weiler, Markus; Alewell, Christine (2014). Tracking water pathways in steep hillslopes by d18O depth profiles of soil water. Journal of hydrology, 519(Pt. A), pp. 340-352. Elsevier 10.1016/j.jhydrol.2014.07.031

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Assessing temporal variations in soil water flow is important, especially at the hillslope scale, to identify mechanisms of runoff and flood generation and pathways for nutrients and pollutants in soils. While surface processes are well considered and parameterized, the assessment of subsurface processes at the hillslope scale is still challenging since measurement of hydrological pathways is connected to high efforts in time, money and personnel work. The latter might not even be possible in alpine environments with harsh winter processes. Soil water stable isotope profiles may offer a time-integrating fingerprint of subsurface water pathways. In this study, we investigated the suitability of soil water stable isotope (d18O) depth profiles to identify water flow paths along two transects of steep subalpine hillslopes in the Swiss Alps. We applied a one-dimensional advection–dispersion model using d18O values of precipitation (ranging from _24.7 to _2.9‰) as input data to simulate the d18O profiles of soil water. The variability of d18O values with depth within each soil profile and a comparison of the simulated and measured d18O profiles were used to infer information about subsurface hydrological pathways. The temporal pattern of d18O in precipitation was found in several profiles, ranging from _14.5 to _4.0‰. This suggests that vertical percolation plays an important role even at slope angles of up to 46_. Lateral subsurface flow and/or mixing of soil water at lower slope angles might occur in deeper soil layers and at sites near a small stream. The difference between several observed and simulated d18O profiles revealed spatially highly variable infiltration patterns during the snowmelt periods: The d18O value of snow (_17.7 ± 1.9‰) was absent in several measured d18O profiles but present in the respective simulated d18O profiles. This indicated overland flow and/or preferential flow through the soil profile during the melt period. The applied methods proved to be a fast and promising tool to obtain time-integrated information on soil water flow paths at the hillslope scale in steep subalpine slopes.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Original Article)


10 Strategic Research Centers > Centre for Development and Environment (CDE)

UniBE Contributor:

Alaoui, Abdallah








Stephan Schmidt

Date Deposited:

19 Mar 2015 14:23

Last Modified:

22 Oct 2015 09:45

Publisher DOI:





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