Substantial proportion of global streamflow less than three months old

Journal name:
Nature Geoscience
Volume:
9,
Pages:
126–129
Year published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/ngeo2636
Received
Accepted
Published online

Biogeochemical cycles, contaminant transport and chemical weathering are regulated by the speed at which precipitation travels through landscapes and reaches streams1. Streamflow is a mixture of young and old precipitation2, but the global proportions of these young and old components are not known. Here we analyse seasonal cycles of oxygen isotope ratios in rain, snow and streamflow compiled from 254 watersheds around the world, and calculate the fraction of streamflow that is derived from precipitation that fell within the past two or three months. This young streamflow accounts for about a third of global river discharge, and comprises at least 5% of discharge in about 90% of the catchments we investigated. We conclude that, although typical catchments have mean transit times of years or even decades3, they nonetheless can rapidly transmit substantial fractions of soluble contaminant inputs to streams. Young streamflow is less prevalent in steeper landscapes, which suggests they are characterized by deeper vertical infiltration. Because young streamflow is derived from less than 0.1% of global groundwater storage, we conclude that this thin veneer of aquifer storage will have a disproportionate influence on stream water quality.

At a glance

Figures

  1. Fractions of young streamflow in global rivers.
    Figure 1: Fractions of young streamflow in global rivers.

    a, Comparison of the seasonal cycle amplitudes of river δ18O and precipitation δ18O for our study watersheds (error bars are one standard error). The colour fan depicts the fraction of young streamflow, defined as precipitation that enters the stream in less than 2.3 ± 0.8 months. b, Histogram of these young streamflow fractions. The median young streamflow fraction is 21%, with a 10th–90th percentile range of 4–53%. The flow-weighted mean young streamflow is 34%.

  2. Fractions of young streamflow in North American (left) and European (right) rivers.
    Figure 2: Fractions of young streamflow in North American (left) and European (right) rivers.

    Thin black lines delineate catchment boundaries and coloured points mark the locations of river sampling stations, with colours indicating the young streamflow fraction. Blue and red points indicate rivers with more and less young streamflow than the global median, respectively. Thick black lines for North America delineate the Mackenzie, Colorado, Mississippi and St Lawrence drainage systems. Greyscale shading represents topographic slope.

  3. Young streamflow and topographic slope in 254 watersheds.
    Figure 3: Young streamflow and topographic slope in 254 watersheds.

    Steeper watersheds tend to have less young streamflow (unweighted regression marked by solid line; dashed lines show the 90% confidence intervals). Although it is statistically significant (p < 0.0001), the relationship between young streamflow and the logarithm of topographic slope shows substantial scatter, indicating other catchment characteristics also influence young streamflow. Calculated young streamflow standard errors are indicated by the colour scale (see colour bar; standard errors expressed as a percentage of discharge).

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Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Geography, University of Calgary, 2500 University Drive NW, Calgary, Alberta T2N 1N4, Canada

    • Scott Jasechko
  2. Department of Environmental System Sciences, ETH Zürich, Universitätstrasse 16, CH-8092 Zürich, Switzerland

    • James W. Kirchner
  3. Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL, Zürcherstrasse 111, CH-8903 Birmensdorf, Switzerland

    • James W. Kirchner
  4. Department of Earth and Planetary Science, University of California, 307 McCone Hall, Berkeley, California 94720, USA

    • James W. Kirchner
  5. Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alaska Anchorage, 3211 Providence Drive, Anchorage, Alaska 99508, USA

    • Jeffrey M. Welker
  6. Global Institute for Water Security, and School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan, 11 Innovation Boulevard, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan S7N 3H5, Canada

    • Jeffrey J. McDonnell
  7. School of Geosciences, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, Scotland AB24 3FX, UK

    • Jeffrey J. McDonnell
  8. Department for Forest Engineering, Resources and Management, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon 97330, USA

    • Jeffrey J. McDonnell

Contributions

S.J., J.W.K. and J.J.M. conceived the idea to analyse young streamflow in global rivers. S.J. and J.W.K. analysed the geospatial and isotopic data set. J.M.W. provided precipitation isotope data. All authors contributed to writing or editing the manuscript text.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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