Many details about the flow of water in soils in a hillslope are unknowable given current technologies. One way of learning about the bulk effects of water velocity distributions on hillslopes is through the use of tracers. However, this paper will demonstrate that the interpretation of tracer information needs to become more sophisticated. The paper reviews, and complements with mathematical arguments and specific examples, theory and practice of the distribution(s) of the times water particles injected through rainfall spend traveling through a catchment up to a control section (i.e., "catchment" travel times). The relevance of the work is perceived to lie in the importance of the characterization of travel time distributions as fundamental descriptors of catchment water storage, flow pathway heterogeneity, sources of water in a catchment, and the chemistry of water flows through the control section. The paper aims to correct some common misconceptions used in analyses of travel time distributions. In particular, it stresses the conceptual and practical differences between the travel time distribution conditional on a given injection time (needed for rainfall-runoff transformations) and that conditional on a given sampling time at the outlet (as provided by isotopic dating techniques or tracer measurements), jointly with the differences of both with the residence time distributions of water particles in storage within the catchment at any time. These differences are defined precisely here, either through the results of different models or theoretically by using an extension of a classic theorem of dynamic controls. Specifically, we address different model results to highlight the features of travel times seen from different assumptions, in this case, exact solutions to a lumped model and numerical solutions of the 3-D flow and transport equations in variably saturated, physically heterogeneous catchment domains. Our results stress the individual characters of the relevant distributions and their general nonstationarity yielding their legitimate interchange only in very particular conditions rarely achieved in the field. We also briefly discuss the impact of oversimple assumptions commonly used in analyses of tracer data. Copyright 2011 by the American Geophysical Union.
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