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Substantial proportion of global streamflow less than three months old


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.

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Figure 1: Fractions of young streamflow in global rivers.
Figure 2: Fractions of young streamflow in North American (left) and European (right) rivers.
Figure 3: Young streamflow and topographic slope in 254 watersheds.

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S. J. Birks, T. W. D. Edwards, Y. Fan, T. Gleeson and the International Atomic Energy Agency are acknowledged for providing stable isotope, water table depth and bedrock porosity data valuable to this study. S.J. was supported by an NSERC Discovery Grant (No. 5668) and an NSERC Canada Cold Regions Research Network Grant.

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Authors and Affiliations



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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Correspondence to Scott Jasechko.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Jasechko, S., Kirchner, J., Welker, J. et al. Substantial proportion of global streamflow less than three months old. Nature Geosci 9, 126–129 (2016).

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