Exploring Tracer Information and Model Framework Trade-Offs to Improve Estimation of Stream Transient Storage Processes

Christa Kelleher, Adam Ward, J. L.A. Knapp, P. J. Blaen, M. J. Kurz, J. D. Drummond, J. P. Zarnetske, D. M. Hannah, C. Mendoza-Lera, N. M. Schmadel, T. Datry, J. Lewandowski, A. M. Milner, S. Krause

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


Novel observation techniques (e.g., smart tracers) for characterizing coupled hydrological and biogeochemical processes are improving understanding of stream network transport and transformation dynamics. In turn, these observations are thought to enable increasingly sophisticated representations within transient storage models (TSMs). However, TSM parameter estimation is prone to issues with insensitivity and equifinality, which grow as parameters are added to model formulations. Currently, it is unclear whether (or not) observations from different tracers may lead to greater process inference and reduced parameter uncertainty in the context of TSM. Herein, we aim to unravel the role of in-stream processes alongside metabolically active (MATS) and inactive storage zones (MITS) using variable TSM formulations. Models with one (1SZ) and two storage zones (2SZ) and with and without reactivity were applied to simulate conservative and smart tracer observations obtained experimentally for two reaches with differing morphologies. As we show, smart tracers are unsurprisingly superior to conservative tracers when it comes to partitioning MITS and MATS. However, when transient storage is lumped within a 1SZ formulation, little improvement in parameter uncertainty is gained by using a smart tracer, suggesting the addition of observations should scale with model complexity. Importantly, our work identifies several inconsistencies and open questions related to reconciling time scales of tracer observation with conceptual processes (parameters) estimated within TSM. Approaching TSM with multiple models and tracer observations may be key to gaining improved insight into transient storage simulation as well as advancing feedback loops between models and observations within hydrologic science.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3481-3501
Number of pages21
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2019


  • hyporheic zone
  • model intercomparison
  • resazurin
  • smart tracer
  • stream
  • transient storage modeling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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