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Keywords:

  • runoff processes;
  • transit times;
  • tracers;
  • chloride;
  • topographic indices;
  • landscape characteristics

[1] Mean transit time (MTT) is being increasingly used as a metric of hydrological function in intercatchment comparisons. Estimating MTT usually involves relating the temporally varying input concentration of a conservative tracer to the signal in the stream using various transfer functions as transit time distributions (TTDs). Most studies have been confined to data collection periods of 1–2 years at single sites, often limiting the transferability of the findings as such short periods usually only capture a narrow range of climatic variability within a spatially restricted area. In this study, we use longer-term (up to 17 years) weekly input-output relationships of Cl to estimate MTTs using a range of TTD models in 20 headwater catchments (ranging from <1 to 35 km2) in seven geomorphologically and climatically distinct parts of the Scottish Highlands. The MTTs obtained from a Gamma distribution model were the best identified and ranged from about 50 to 1700 days for individual catchments. The MTTs, in conjunction with GIS analysis of landscape characteristics and climatic indices, allowed the development of a robust multiple-regression model to establish the relative importance of different landscape and climate controls on MTTs. The best model combines the prediction variables percent responsive soil cover, drainage density, precipitation intensity, and topographic wetness index and yields R2adj = 0.88. Cross validation shows small absolute error, suggesting that the model can be used to estimate MTTs in ungauged headwater catchments throughout the Scottish Highlands and potentially in similar regions where comparable information is available.