Abstract. During spring, daily stream flow and groundwater dynamics in forested subalpine catchmentsare to a large extent controlled by hydrological processes thatrespond to the day–night energy cycle. Diurnal snowmelt and transpirationevents combine to induce pressure variations in the soil water storage thatare propagated to the stream. In headwater catchments these pressurevariations can account for a significant amount of the total pressure in thesystem and control the magnitude, duration, and timing of stream inflowpulses at daily scales, especially in low-flow systems. Changes in theradiative balance at the top of the snowpack can alter the diurnal hydrologicdynamics of the hillslope–stream system, with potential ecological andmanagement consequences.
We present a detailed hourly dataset of atmospheric, hillslope, andstreamflow measurements collected during one melt season from a semi-alpineheadwater catchment in western Montana, US. We use this dataset toinvestigate the timing, pattern, and linkages among snowmelt-dominatedhydrologic processes and assess the role of the snowpack, transpiration, andhillslopes in mediating daily movements of water from the top of the snowpackto local stream systems. We found that the amount of snowpack cold contentaccumulated during the night, which must be overcome every morning beforesnowmelt resumes, delayed water recharge inputs by up to 3h early in themelt season. These delays were further exacerbated by multi-day storms (coldfronts), which resulted in significant depletions in the soil and streamstorages. We also found that both diurnal snowmelt and transpiration signalsare present in the diurnal soil and stream storage fluctuations, although theindividual contributions of these processes are difficult to discern. Ouranalysis showed that the hydrologic response of the snow–hillslope–streamsystem is highly sensitive to atmospheric drivers at hourly scales and thatvariations in atmospheric energy inputs or other stresses are quicklytransmitted and alter the intensity, duration, and timing of snowmelt pulsesand soil water extractions by vegetation, which ultimately drive variationsin soil and stream water pressures.
In snowmelt‐driven mountain watersheds, the hydrologic connectivity between meteoric waters and stream flow generation varies strongly with the season, reflecting variable connection to soil and groundwater storage within the watershed. This variable connectivity regulates how streamflow generation mechanisms transform the seasonal and elevational variation in oxygen and hydrogen isotopic composition (δ18O and δD) of meteoric precipitation. Thus, water isotopes in stream flow can signal immediate connectivity or more prolonged mixing, especially in high‐relief mountainous catchments. We characterized δ18O and δD values in stream water along an elevational gradient in a mountain headwater catchment in southwestern Montana. Stream water isotopic compositions related most strongly to elevation between February and March, exhibiting higher δ18O and δD values with decreasing elevation. These elevational isotopic lapse rates likely reflect increased connection between stream flow and proximal snow‐derived water sources heavily subject to elevational isotopic effects. These patterns disappeared during summer sampling, when consistently lower δ18O and δD values of stream water reflected contributions from snowmelt or colder rainfall, despite much higher δ18O and δD values expected in warmer seasonal rainfall. The consistently low isotopic values and absence of a trend with elevation during summer suggest lower connectivity between summer precipitation and stream flow generation as a consequence of drier soils and greater transpiration. As further evidence of intermittent seasonal connectivity between the stream and adjacent groundwaters, we observed a late‐winter flush of nitrate into the stream at higher elevations, consistent with increased connection to accumulating mineralized nitrogen in riparian wetlands. This pattern was distinct from mid‐summer patterns of nitrate loading at lower elevations that suggested heightened human recreational activity along the stream corridor. These observations provide insights linking stream flow generation and seasonal water storage in high elevation mountainous watersheds. Greater understanding of the connections between surface water, soil water and groundwater in these environments will help predict how the quality and quantity of mountain runoff will respond to changing climate and allow better informed water management decisions.
Quantitative estimations of ecohydrological water partitioning into evaporation and transpiration remains mostly based on plot‐scale investigations that use well‐instrumented, small‐scale experimental catchments in temperate regions. Here, we attempted to upscale and adapt the conceptual tracer‐aided ecohydrology model STARRtropics to simulate water partitioning, tracer, and storage dynamics over daily time steps and a 1‐km grid larger‐scale (2565 km2) in a sparsely instrumented tropical catchment in Costa Rica. The model was driven by bias‐corrected regional climate model outputs and was simultaneously calibrated against daily discharge observations from 2 to 30 years at four discharge gauging stations and a 1‐year, monthly streamwater isotope record of 46 streams. The overall model performance for the best discharge simulations ranged in KGE values from 0.4 to 0.6 and correlation coefficients for streamflow isotopes from 0.3 to 0.45. More importantly, independent model‐derived transpiration estimates, point‐scale residence time estimates, and measured groundwater isotopes showed reasonable model performance and simulated spatial and temporal patterns pointing towards an overall model realism at the catchment scale over reduced performance in the headwaters. The simulated catchment system was dominated by low‐seasonality and high precipitation inputs and a marked topographical gradient. Climatic drivers overrode smaller, landcover‐dependent transpiration fluxes giving a seemingly homogeneous rainfall‐runoff dominance likely related to model input bias of rainfall isotopes, oversimplistic Potential Evapotranspiration (PET) estimates and averaged Leaf Area Index (LAI). Topographic influences resulted in more dynamic water and tracer fluxes in the headwaters that averaged further downstream at aggregated catchment scales. Modelled headwaters showed greater storage capacity by nearly an order of magnitude compared to the lowlands, which also favoured slightly longer residence times (>250 days) compared to superficially well‐connected groundwater contributing to shorter streamflow residence times (<150 days) in the lowlands. Our findings confirm that tracer‐aided ecohydrological modelling, even in the data‐scarce Tropics, can help gain a first, but crucial approximation of spatio‐temporal dynamics of how water is partitioned, stored and transported beyond the experimental catchment scale of only a few km2.