23 Nov 2016
 | 23 Nov 2016
Status: this discussion paper is a preprint. It has been under review for the journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences (HESS). The manuscript was not accepted for further review after discussion.

The hierarchy of controls on snowmelt-runoff generation over seasonally-frozen hillslopes

Anna E. Coles, Willemijn M. Appels, Brian G. McConkey, and Jeffrey J. McDonnell

Abstract. Understanding and modeling snowmelt-runoff generation in seasonally-frozen regions is a major challenge in hydrology. Partly, this is because the controls on hillslope-scale snowmelt-runoff generation are potentially extensive and their hierarchy is poorly understood. Understanding the relative importance of controls (e.g. topography, vegetation, land use, soil characteristics, and precipitation dynamics) on runoff response is necessary for model development, spatial extrapolation, and runoff classification schemes. Multiple interacting process controls, the nonlinearities between them, and the resultant threshold-like activation of runoff, typically are not observable in short-term experiments or single-season field studies. Therefore, long-term datasets and analyses are needed. Here, we use a 52-year dataset of runoff, precipitation, soil water content, snow cover, and meteorological data from three monitored c.5 ha hillslopes on the Canadian Prairies to determine the controls on snowmelt-runoff, their time-varying hierarchy, and the interactions between the controls. We use decision tree learning to extract information from the dataset on the controls on runoff ratio. Our analysis shows that there was a variable relationship between total spring runoff amount and either winter snowfall amount or snow cover water equivalent. Other factors came into play to control the fraction of precipitated water that infiltrated into the frozen ground. In descending order of importance, these were: total snowfall, snow cover, fall soil surface water content, melt rate, melt season length, and fall soil profile water content. While mid-winter warm periods in some years likely increased soil water content and/or led to development of impermeable ice lenses that affected the runoff response, hillslope memory of fall soil moisture conditions played a strong role in the spring runoff response. The hierarchy of these controls was condition-dependent, with the biggest differences between high and low snow cover seasons, and wet and dry fall soil moisture conditions. For example, when snow cover was high, the top three controls on runoff ratio matched the overall hierarchy of controls, with fall soil surface water content being the most important of these. By comparison, when snow cover was low, fall soil surface content was relatively unimportant and superseded by four other controls. Existing empirical methods for predicting infiltration into frozen ground failed to adequately predict runoff response at our site. Our analysis of the hierarchy of controls on meltwater runoff will aid in focusing new model approaches and understanding what to focus future measurement campaigns on in snowmelt-dominated, seasonally-frozen regions.

Anna E. Coles et al.

Status: closed
Status: closed
AC: Author comment | RC: Referee comment | SC: Short comment | EC: Editor comment
Printer-friendly Version - Printer-friendly version Supplement - Supplement
Status: closed
Status: closed
AC: Author comment | RC: Referee comment | SC: Short comment | EC: Editor comment
Printer-friendly Version - Printer-friendly version Supplement - Supplement

Anna E. Coles et al.

Anna E. Coles et al.


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Latest update: 02 Dec 2023
Short summary
We used a long-term hydrological and meteorological dataset to unravel the interactions and feedbacks between controls on snowmelt-runoff over Canadian Prairie hillslopes. We found a condition-dependent hierarchy of controls on snowmelt-runoff, which include soil water content, precipitation, melt season length and melt rate. These results have implications for hydrological modeling on seasonally-frozen ground, and for guiding cost-effective and useful field measurements.