Stable water isotope variation in a Central Andean watershed dominated by glacier and snowmelt
Abstract. Central Chile is an economically important region for which water supply is dependent on snow- and ice melt. Nevertheless, the relative contribution of water supplied by each of those two sources remains largely unknown. This study represents the first attempt to estimate the region's water balance using stable isotopes of water in streamflow and its sources. Isotopic ratios of both H and O were monitored during one year in a high-altitude basin with a moderate glacier cover (11.5%). We found that the steep altitude gradient of the studied catchment caused a corresponding gradient in snowpack isotopic composition and that this spatial variation had a profound effect on the temporal evolution of streamflow isotopic composition during snowmelt. Glacier melt and snowmelt contributions to streamflow in the studied basin were determined using a quantitative analysis of the isotopic composition of streamflow and its sources, resulting in a glacier melt contribution of 50–90% for the unusually dry melt year of 2011/2012. This suggests that in (La Niña) years with little precipitation, glacier melt is an important water source for central Chile. Predicted decreases in glacier melt due to global warming may therefore have a negative long-term impact on water availability in the Central Andes. The pronounced seasonal pattern in streamflow isotope composition and its close relation to the variability in snow cover and discharge presents a potentially powerful tool to relate discharge variability in mountainous, melt-dominated catchments with related factors such as contributions of sources to streamflow and snowmelt transit times.