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Understanding hydrological processes in glacierized catchments: Evidence and implications of highly variable isotopic and electrical conductivity data

Zuecco, Giulia, Carturan, Luca, De Blasi, Fabrizio, Seppi, Roberto, Zanoner, Thomas, Penna, Daniele, Borga, Marco, Carton, Alberto, Dalla Fontana, Giancarlo
Hydrological processes 2019 v.33 no.5 pp. 816-832
air temperature, deuterium, electrical conductivity, glaciers, groundwater, hydrometeorology, ice, melting, rain, runoff, snow, snowmelt, snowpack, stable isotopes, stream flow, streams, temporal variation, tracer techniques, watersheds, winter, Alps region, Italy
The spatial and temporal characterization of geochemical tracers over Alpine glacierized catchments is particularly difficult, but fundamental to quantify groundwater, glacier melt, and rain water contribution to stream runoff. In this study, we analysed the spatial and temporal variability of δ²H and electrical conductivity (EC) in various water sources during three ablation seasons in an 8.4‐km² glacierized catchment in the Italian Alps, in relation to snow cover and hydro‐meteorological conditions. Variations in the daily streamflow range due to melt‐induced runoff events were controlled by maximum daily air temperature and snow covered area in the catchment. Maximum daily streamflow decreased with increasing snow cover, and a threshold relation was found between maximum daily temperature and daily streamflow range. During melt‐induced runoff events, stream water EC decreased due to the contribution of glacier melt water to stream runoff. In this catchment, EC could be used to distinguish the contribution of subglacial flow (identified as an end member, enriched in EC) from glacier melt water to stream runoff, whereas spring water in the study area could not be considered as an end member. The isotopic composition of snow, glacier ice, and melt water was not significantly correlated with the sampling point elevation, and the spatial variability was more likely affected by postdepositional processes. The high spatial and temporal variability in the tracer signature of the end members (subglacial flow, rain water, glacier melt water, and residual winter snow), together with small daily variability in stream water δ²H dynamics, are problematic for the quantification of the contribution of the identified end members to stream runoff, and call for further research, possibly integrated with other natural or artificial tracers.