Winter stream temperature in the rain-on-snow zone of the Pacific Northwest: influences of hillslope runoff and transient snow cover
Abstract. Stream temperature dynamics during winter are less well studied than summer thermal regimes, but the winter season thermal regime can be critical for fish growth and development in coastal catchments. The winter thermal regimes of Pacific Northwest headwater streams, which provide vital winter habitat for salmonids and their food sources, may be particularly sensitive to changes in climate because they can remain ice-free throughout the year and are often located in rain-on-snow zones. This study examined winter stream temperature patterns and controls in small headwater catchments within the rain-on-snow zone at the Malcolm Knapp Research Forest, near Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Two hypotheses were addressed by this study: (1) winter stream temperatures are primarily controlled by advective fluxes associated with runoff processes and (2) stream temperatures should be depressed during rain-on-snow events, compared to rain-on-bare-ground events, due to the cooling effect of rain passing through the snowpack prior to infiltrating the soil or being delivered to the stream as saturation-excess overland flow. A reach-scale energy budget analysis of two winter seasons revealed that the advective energy input associated with hillslope runoff overwhelms vertical energy exchanges (net radiation, sensible and latent heat fluxes, bed heat conduction, and stream friction) and hyporheic energy fluxes during rain and rain-on-snow events. Historical stream temperature data and modelled snowpack dynamics were used to explore the influence of transient snow cover on stream temperature over 13 winters. When snow was not present, daily stream temperature during winter rain events tended to increase with increasing air temperature. However, when snow was present, stream temperature was capped at about 5 °C, regardless of air temperature. The stream energy budget modelling and historical analysis support both of our hypotheses. A key implication is that climatic warming may generate higher winter stream temperatures in the rain-on-snow zone due to both increased rain temperature and reduced cooling effect of snow cover.