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Abstract

The relationship between streamwater mean residence time (MRT) and landscape characteristics is poorly understood. We used tritium (3H) to define our MRT. We tested the hypothesis that baseflow water MRT increases with increasing absolute catchment size at the Maimai catchments. These catchments are simple hydrologic systems relative to many catchments around the world, with uniformly wet climatic conditions, little seasonality, uniform and nearly impermeable bedrock, steep short hillslopes, shallow soils, and well-characterized hillslope and catchment hydrology. As a result, this is a relatively simple system and an ideal location for new MRT-related hypothesis testing. Whilst hydrologists have used 3H to estimate water age since the 1960s nuclear testing spike, atmospheric 3H levels have now approached near background levels and are often complicated by contamination from the nuclear industry. We present results for 3H sampled from our set of nested catchments in nuclear-industry-free New Zealand. Because of high precision analysis, near-natural atmospheric 3H levels, and well-characterized rainfall 3H inputs, we were able to estimate the age of young (i.e. less than 3 years old) waters. Our results showed no correlation between MRT and catchment size. However, MRT was correlated to the median sub-catchment size of the sampled watersheds, as shown by landscape analysis of catchment area accumulation patterns. These preliminary findings suggest that landscape organization, rather than total area, is a first-order control on MRT and points the way forward for more detailed analysis of how landscape organization affects catchment runoff characteristics. Copyright © 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.