Nitrate Hysteresis as a Tool for Revealing Storm-Event Dynamics and Improving Water Quality Model Performance

Admin Husic, James F. Fox, Evan Clare, Tyler Mahoney, Amirreza Zarnaghsh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Understanding the physics of nitrate contamination in surface and subsurface water is vital for mitigating downstream water quality impairment. Though high frequency sensor data have become readily available and computational models more accessible, the integration of these two methods for improved prediction is underdeveloped. The objective of this study was to utilize high-frequency data to advance our understanding and model representation of nitrate transport for an agricultural karst spring in Kentucky, USA. We collected 2-years of 15-min nitrate and specific conductance data and analyzed source-timing dynamics across dozens of events to develop a conceptual model for nitrate hysteresis in karst. Thereafter, we used the sensing data, specifically discharge-concentration indices, to constrain modeled nitrate prediction bounds as well as the uncertainty of hydrologic and nitrogen processes, such as soil percolation and biogeochemical transformation. Observed nitrate hysteresis behavior at the spring was complex and included clockwise (n = 11), counterclockwise (n = 13), and figure-eight (n = 10) shapes, which contrasts with surface systems that are often dominated by a single hysteresis shape. Sensing results highlight the importance of antecedent connectivity to nitrate-rich storages in determining the timing of nitrate delivery to the spring. After integrating hysteresis analysis into our numerical model evaluation, simulated nitrate prediction bounds were reduced by 43 ± 12% and parameter uncertainty by 36 ± 20%. Taken together, this study suggests that discharge-concentration indices derived from high-frequency sensor data can be successfully integrated into numerical models to improve process representation and reduce modeled uncertainty.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2022WR033180
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023. American Geophysical Union. All Rights Reserved.


  • hysteresis
  • karst
  • modeling
  • nitrate
  • sensors
  • uncertainty

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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