Tracer-based evidence of heterogeneity in subsurface flow and storage within a boreal hillslope

Hydrological Processes
By: , and 



Runoff from boreal hillslopes is often affected by distinct soil boundaries, including the frozen boundary and the organic – mineral boundary (OMB), where highly porous and hydraulically-conductive organic material overlies fine-grained mineral soils. Viewed from the surface, ground cover appears as a patchwork on sub-meter scales, with thick, moss mats interspersed with lichen-covered, silty soils with gravel inclusions. We conducted a decameter-scale subsurface tracer test on a boreal forest hillslope in interior Alaska to quantify locations and mechanisms of transport and storage in these soils, focusing on the OMB. A sodium bromide tracer was added as a slug addition to a pit and sampled at 40 down-gradient wells, screened primarily at the OMB and within a 7 by 12 m well field. We maintained an elevated head in the injection pit for 8.5 h to simulate a storm. Tracer breakthrough velocities ranged from < 0.12 to 0.93 m hr-1, with the highest velocities in lichen-covered soils. After 12 hours and cessation of the elevated head, the tracer coalesced and was only detected in thick mosses at a trough in the OMB. By 24 hours, approximately 17% of the tracer mass could be accounted for. The majority of the mass loss occurred between 4 and 12 hours, while the tracer was in contact with lichen-covered soils, which is consistent with tracer transport into deeper flow paths via preferential flow through discrete gravelly areas. Slow breakthroughs suggest that storage and exchange also occurred in shallow soils, likely related to saturation and drainage in fine-grained mineral soils caused by the elevated hydraulic head. These findings highlight the complex nature of storage and transmission of water and solutes from boreal hillslopes to streams, and are particularly relevant given rapid changes to boreal environments related to climate change, thawing permafrost and increasing fire severity.

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Tracer-based evidence of heterogeneity in subsurface flow and storage within a boreal hillslope
Series title Hydrological Processes
DOI 10.1002/hyp.11205
Volume 31
Issue 13
Year Published 2017
Language English
Publisher Wiley
Contributing office(s) Alaska Science Center Water
Description 11 p.
First page 2453
Last page 2463
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