Concentration versus streamflow trends of major ions and tritium in headwater streams as indicators of changing water stores

Ian Cartwright, Uwe Morgenstern, Harald Hofmann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)


Documenting the processes that control the variations in stream geochemistry at different streamflows is important for being able to use chemical tracers to understand catchment functioning. The concentrations of most solutes, including reactive cations (e.g., Na, Ca, K, and Mg) and anions that are primarily derived from precipitation (Cl and Br), in five headwater streams from southeast Australia vary little with streamflow and are close to being chemostatic. By contrast, NO3 and SO4 concentrations are higher at high streamflows. There is also a systematic increase of 3H activities from as low as 1.1 to as high as 2.6 TU with increasing streamflow. The changes in geochemistry cannot be explained solely by increased mineral dissolution at high streamflows or enhanced baseflow driven by hydraulic loading. They are best explained by an increased baseflow input augmented by water mobilized from shallower stores as the catchments wet up. The mean transit times of the water sustaining streamflow varies from 35 to 70 years at low streamflows to <7 years at high streamflows. The use of a range of geochemical tracers, including radioactive isotopes, allows the different possible causes of chemostatic behaviour to be assessed and improves our understanding of catchment functioning.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)485-505
Number of pages21
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2020


  • chemostasis
  • headwaters
  • mean transit times
  • river chemistry
  • tritium

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