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Title: Winter runoff events pose an unquantified continental-scale risk of high wintertime nutrient export
Abstract Winters in snow-covered regions have warmed, likely shifting the timing and magnitude of nutrient export, leading to unquantified changes in water quality. Intermittent, seasonal, and permanent snow covers more than half of the global land surface. Warming has reduced the cold conditions that limit winter runoff and nutrient transport, while cold season snowmelt, the amount of winter precipitation falling as rain, and rain-on-snow have increased. We used existing geospatial datasets (rain-on-snow frequency overlain on nitrogen and phosphorous inventories) to identify areas of the contiguous United States (US) where water quality could be threatened by this change. Next, to illustrate the potential export impacts of these events, we examined flow and turbidity data from a large regional rain-on-snow event in the United States’ largest river basin, the Mississippi River Basin. We show that rain-on-snow, a major flood-generating mechanism for large areas of the globe (Berghuijs et al 2019 Water Resour. Res. 55 4582–93; Berghuijs et al 2016 Geophys. Res. Lett. 43 4382–90), affects 53% of the contiguous US and puts 50% of US nitrogen and phosphorus pools (43% of the contiguous US) at risk of export to groundwater and surface water. Further, the 2019 rain-on-snow event in the Mississippi River more » Basin demonstrates that these events could have large, cascading impacts on winter nutrient transport. We suggest that the assumption of low wintertime discharge and nutrient transport in historically snow-covered regions no longer holds. Critically, however, we lack sufficient data to accurately measure and predict these episodic and potentially large wintertime nutrient export events at regional to continental scales. « less
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Environmental Research Letters
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National Science Foundation
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