Sediment fingerprinting as a tool to identify temporal and spatial variability of sediment sources and transport pathways in agricultural catchments

S. Sherriff, J.S. Rowan, O. Fenton, P. Jordan, D. Ó hUallacháin

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Management strategies to reduce soil loss and sediment delivery from agricultural land requires an empirical understanding of sediment sources. Sediment fingerprinting is a technique to apportion sources to a downstream sediment sample which, when applied at high spatial and temporal resolutions, can offer insights into catchment sediment dynamics. However, developing an over-arching tool can be hindered due to indeterminate interactions such as, for example, landuse, soil and geological conditions and multiple sediment source pressures. To address this, a multi-proxy sediment fingerprinting approach was used in three catchment observatories in Ireland, characterised and referred to by their predominant soil drainage and land use characteristics: poorly-drained grassland, well-drained arable and moderately-drained arable. Potential sediment source groups: channels, field topsoils, and roads, were sampled. Target sediment samples were collected from six sites within each catchment over approximately two-years from May 2012 to May 2014. Geochemical, mineral magnetic and radionuclide tracers were measured in source and target sediment samples and, following justified tracer selection, source proportions were estimated using an uncertainty inclusive un-mixing model. Overall, the poorly-, well- and moderately-drained catchments exported 828, 421 and 619 tonnes, respectively (36, 19 and 33 t km−2 yr-1). Estimated source contributions from channel, field topsoil and road groups were overall, 67%, 27% and 4% in the poorly-drained grassland, 53%, 24% and 24% in the well-drained arable and 9%, 82% and 8% in the moderately-drained arable catchment outlets. Sub-catchment source estimates were generally consistent with the catchment outlet over space and time. Short-term activation of previously unidentified transport pathways were detected, for example, field sources transported by the road network in the well-drained catchment. In catchments with high hydrological surface connectivity (moderate and poor soil drainage), exposed soils were most sensitive to soil erosion and sediment delivery. Where groundcover is maintained on these soils, sediment connectivity was diminished and flow energy is transferred to the stream network where channel bank erosion increased. In the well-drained arable catchment, sub-surface flow pathways dominated and consequently channel sources, broadly representative of subsoil characteristics, were the largest sediment source. Sediment connectivity contrasted in the studied agricultural catchments according to source availability, and erosion, transport and delivery processes. Effective sediment management strategies in intensive and intensifying agricultural catchments must consider sediment loss risk resulting from catchment specific sediment connectivity and emphasise mitigation strategies accordingly.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)188-200
JournalAgriculture, Ecosystems & Environment
Early online date5 Sept 2018
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 15 Nov 2018


  • Soil erosion
  • Water quality
  • Agriculture
  • Catchment management
  • Connectivity


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