Articles | Volume 21, issue 8
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 21, 4053–4071, 2017
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 21, 4053–4071, 2017

Research article 14 Aug 2017

Research article | 14 Aug 2017

Simulating the influence of snow surface processes on soil moisture dynamics and streamflow generation in an alpine catchment

Nander Wever1,2, Francesco Comola1, Mathias Bavay2, and Michael Lehning2,1 Nander Wever et al.
  • 1École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Lausanne, Switzerland
  • 2WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF, Davos, Switzerland

Abstract. The assessment of flood risks in alpine, snow-covered catchments requires an understanding of the linkage between the snow cover, soil and discharge in the stream network. Here, we apply the comprehensive, distributed model Alpine3D to investigate the role of soil moisture in the predisposition of the Dischma catchment in Switzerland to high flows from rainfall and snowmelt. The recently updated soil module of the physics-based multilayer snow cover model SNOWPACK, which solves the surface energy and mass balance in Alpine3D, is verified against soil moisture measurements at seven sites and various depths inside and in close proximity to the Dischma catchment. Measurements and simulations in such terrain are difficult and consequently, soil moisture was simulated with varying degrees of success. Differences between simulated and measured soil moisture mainly arise from an overestimation of soil freezing and an absence of a groundwater description in the Alpine3D model. Both were found to have an influence in the soil moisture measurements. Using the Alpine3D simulation as the surface scheme for a spatially explicit hydrologic response model using a travel time distribution approach for interflow and baseflow, streamflow simulations were performed for the discharge from the catchment. The streamflow simulations provided a closer agreement with observed streamflow when driving the hydrologic response model with soil water fluxes at 30 cm depth in the Alpine3D model. Performance decreased when using the 2 cm soil water flux, thereby mostly ignoring soil processes. This illustrates that the role of soil moisture is important to take into account when understanding the relationship between both snowpack runoff and rainfall and catchment discharge in high alpine terrain. However, using the soil water flux at 60 cm depth to drive the hydrologic response model also decreased its performance, indicating that an optimal soil depth to include in surface simulations exists and that the runoff dynamics are controlled by only a shallow soil layer. Runoff coefficients (i.e. ratio of rainfall over discharge) based on measurements for high rainfall and snowmelt events were found to be dependent on the simulated initial soil moisture state at the onset of an event, further illustrating the important role of soil moisture for the hydrological processes in the catchment. The runoff coefficients using simulated discharge were found to reproduce this dependency, which shows that the Alpine3D model framework can be successfully applied to assess the predisposition of the catchment to flood risks from both snowmelt and rainfall events.

Short summary
The assessment of flood risks in alpine, snow-covered catchments requires an understanding of the linkage between the snow cover, soil and discharge in the stream network. Simulations of soil moisture and streamflow were performed and compared with observations. It was found that discharge at the catchment outlet during intense rainfall or snowmelt periods correlates positively with the initial soil moisture state, in both measurements and simulations.