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Toward generalizable sediment fingerprinting with tracers that are conservative and nonconservative over sediment

Belmont, P., Willenbring, J. K., Schottler, S. P., Marquard, J., Kumarasamy, K., Hemmis, J. M.
2 014
Journal of Soils and Sediments
The science of sediment fingerprinting has been evolving rapidly over the past decade and is well poised to improve our understanding, not only of sediment sources, but also the routing of sediment through watersheds. Here, we discuss channel-floodplain processes that may convolute or modify the sediment fingerprinting signature of alluvial bank/floodplain sources and explore the use of nonconservative tracers for differentiating sediment derived from surface soil erosion from that of near-channel fluvial erosion. We use a mathematical model to demonstrate the theoretical effects of channel-floodplain exchange on conservative and nonconservative tracers. Then, we present flow, sediment gauging data, and geochemical measurements of long- (meteoric beryllium-10, Be-10) and short-lived (excess lead-210 and cesium-137, Pb-210(ex) and Cs-137, respectively) radionuclide tracers from two study locations: one above, and the other below, a rapidly incising knick zone within the Maple River watershed, southern Minnesota. We demonstrate that measurements of Be-10, Pb-210(ex), and Cs-137 associated with suspended sediment can be used to distinguish between the three primary sediment sources (agricultural uplands, bluffs, and banks) and estimate channel-floodplain exchange. We observe how the sediment sources systematically vary by location and change over the course of a single storm hydrograph. While sediment dynamics for any given event are not necessarily indicative of longer-term trends, the results are consistent with our geomorphic understanding of the system and longer-term observations of sediment dynamics. We advocate for future sediment fingerprinting studies to develop a geomorphic rationale to explain the distribution of the fingerprinting properties for any given study area, with the intent of developing a more generalizable, process-based fingerprinting approach. We show that measurements of conservative and nonconservative tracers (e.g., long- and short-lived radionuclides) can provide spatially integrated, yet temporally discrete, insights to constrain sediment sources and channel-floodplain exchange at the river network-scale. Fingerprinting that utilizes nonconservative tracers requires that the nonconservative behavior is predictable and verifiable.

Department of Earth and Environmental Science / University of Pennsylvania, 251 Hayden Hall, 240 South 33rd Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6316