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A classification of streamflow patterns across the coastal Gulf of Alaska

February 1, 2020

Streamflow controls many freshwater and marine processes, including salinity profiles, sediment composition, fluxes of nutrients, and the timing of animal migrations. Watersheds that border the Gulf of Alaska (GOA) comprise over 400,000 km2 of largely pristine freshwater habitats and provide ecosystem services such as reliable fisheries for local and global food production. Yet no comprehensive watershed-scale description of current temporal and spatial patterns of streamflow exists within the coastal GOA. This is an immediate need because the spatial distribution of future streamflow patterns may shift dramatically due to warming air temperature, increased rainfall, diminishing snowpack, and rapid glacial recession. Our primary goal was to describe variation in streamflow patterns across the coastal GOA using an objective set of descriptors derived from flow predictions at the downstream-most point within each watershed. We leveraged an existing hydrologic runoff model and Bayesian mixture model to classify 4,140 watersheds into 13 classes based on seven streamflow statistics. Maximum discharge timing (annual phase shift) and magnitude relative to mean discharge (amplitude) were the most influential attributes. Seventy-six percent of watersheds by number showed patterns consistent with rain or snow as dominant runoff sources, while the remaining watersheds were driven by rain-snow, glacier, or low-elevation wetland runoff. Streamflow classes exhibited clear mechanistic links to elevation, ice coverage, and other landscape features. Our classification identifies watersheds that might shift streamflow patterns in the near future and, importantly, will help guide the design of studies that evaluate how hydrologic change will influence coastal GOA ecosystems.

Publication Year 2020
Title A classification of streamflow patterns across the coastal Gulf of Alaska
DOI 10.1029/2019WR026127
Authors Christopher J. Sergeant, Jeffrey A. Falke, Rebecca A. Bellmore, J. Ryan Bellmore, Ryan L. Crumley
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Water Resources Research
Index ID 70228353
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Coop Res Unit Seattle