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Keywords:

  • rare earth element;
  • sediment source areas;
  • soil erosion;
  • hillslope hydrology;
  • tracer depletion;
  • tracer enrichment

Abstract

Rare earth elements (REEs) have been successfully used as a sediment tracer, but the REE technique has never been used for studying sediment sources for a multi-year period. A nearly four-year field experiment was conducted on a small agricultural watershed near Coshocton, OH, USA, to assess the applicability of the REE technique for a multi-year period and to evaluate the relative contributions of sediment sources in the watershed. Tracer depletion and tracer enrichment ratio (ratio of the tracer concentrations in sediment to the concentrations in the soil in the areas of application) were evaluated to examine the applicability and accuracy of the technique. A minimum of 91 per cent of the mass of the applied elements was still available on any individual morphological element at the end of the experimental period. The tracer enrichment ratio varied from 0·4 to 2·3, and it was not significantly related to time. The relative contributions of six morphological elements within the watershed were evaluated as proportions to total sediment yield. The relative contribution of the lower channel was significantly increased as a function of the amount of sediment yield, while that of the lower backslope was significantly decreased. The relative contribution of the lower channel significantly decreased as a function of cumulative sediment yield, while the contributions of the shoulder and the upper backslope significantly increased. Our results showed that the REE technique can be used to track sediment sources for a relatively long period with two limitations or potential sources of error associated with a selective depletion of tracers and a contamination of downslope areas with tagged sediments from upslope areas. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.