Articles | Volume 20, issue 2
Research article
23 Feb 2016
Research article |  | 23 Feb 2016

Importance of maximum snow accumulation for summer low flows in humid catchments

Michal Jenicek, Jan Seibert, Massimiliano Zappa, Maria Staudinger, and Tobias Jonas

Abstract. Winter snow accumulation obviously has an effect on the following catchment runoff. The question is, however, how long this effect lasts and how important it is compared to rainfall inputs. Here we investigate the relative importance of snow accumulation on one critical aspect of runoff, namely the summer low flow. This is especially relevant as the expected increase of air temperature might result in decreased snow storage. A decrease of snow will affect soil and groundwater storages during spring and might cause low streamflow values in the subsequent warm season. To understand these potential climate change impacts, a better evaluation of the effects of inter-annual variations in snow accumulation on summer low flow under current conditions is central. The objective in this study was (1) to quantify how long snowmelt affects runoff after melt-out and (2) to estimate the sensitivity of catchments with different elevation ranges to changes in snowpack. To find suitable predictors of summer low flow we used long time series from 14 Alpine and pre-Alpine catchments in Switzerland and computed different variables quantifying winter and spring snow conditions. In general, the results indicated that maximum winter snow water equivalent (SWE) influenced summer low flow, but could expectedly only partly explain the observed inter-annual variations. On average, a decrease of maximum SWE by 10 % caused a decrease of minimum discharge in July by 6–9 % in catchments higher than 2000 m a.s.l. This effect was smaller in middle- and lower-elevation catchments with a decrease of minimum discharge by 2–5 % per 10 % decrease of maximum SWE. For higher- and middle-elevation catchments and years with below-average SWE maximum, the minimum discharge in July decreased to 70–90 % of its normal level. Additionally, a reduction in SWE resulted in earlier low-flow occurrence in some cases. One other important factor was the precipitation between maximum SWE and summer low flow. When only dry preceding conditions in this period were considered, the importance of maximum SWE as a predictor of low flows increased. We assessed the sensitivity of individual catchments to the change of maximum SWE using the non-parametric Theil–Sen approach as well as an elasticity index. Both sensitivity indicators increased with increasing mean catchment elevation, indicating a higher sensitivity of summer low flow to snow accumulation in Alpine catchments compared to lower-elevation pre-Alpine catchments.

Short summary
We quantified how long snowmelt affects runoff, and we estimated the sensitivity of catchments to changes in snowpack. This is relevant as the increase of air temperature might cause decreased snow storage. We used time series from 14 catchments in Switzerland. On average, a decrease of maximum snow storage by 10 % caused a decrease of minimum discharge in July by 2 to 9 %. The results showed a higher sensitivity of summer low flow to snow in alpine catchments compared to pre-alpine catchments.