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Assessing streamflow sensitivity to variations in glacier mass balance

January 30, 2014

The mountains ringing the Gulf of Alaska (GOA) receive upwards of 4–8 m yr−1 of precipitation (Simpson et al.2005; Weingartner et al. 2005; O’Neel 2012), much of which runs off into productive coastal waters. The alpine landscape is heavily glacierized, and storage and turnover of water by glaciers substantially influences the regional surface water balance (Neal et al. 2010). In turn, the land-to-ocean flux of freshwater impacts the biogeochemistry, physical oceanography, freshwater and marine ecology of the downstream components of the GOA ecosystem (e.g., Royer et al. 2001; Hood and Scott 2008). In this way, the links between terrestrial and ocean ecosystems along the GOA have widespread impacts on regional socioeconomic issues including water and hydropower resources, fish populations, and sea level change (Dorava and Milner 2000; Royer and Grosch 2006; Cherry et al. 2010; Gardner et al. 2013). Moreover, predicting future changes in physical, chemical and biological processes in near-shore ecosystems along the GOA hinges, in part, on developing a robust understanding of water storage and transfer by glaciers through streams to the ocean.
Glacierized basins (i.e. presently ice covered as opposed to glaciated, or historically ice covered) are very efficient producers of runoff, yielding 2–10 times greater runoff than similarly sized, non-glacierized basins (Mayo 1984). The unique energy balance that characterizes these basins (Jansson et al. 2003; Hock 2005) results in substantial alterations to streamflow, even when fractional ice coverage is very small (Stahl and Moore 2006). Consistent and precise treatment of glacier runoff is key to accurate assessment of hydrologic, ecological and socioeconomic impacts, but previously used definitions for glacier runoff are variable. They include: 1) meltwater produced as negative annual mass balance (e.g., Fountain and Tangborn 1985); 2) storage changes in the monthly water budget, where solid precipitation is balanced by melt and evaporation (Huss 2011, concept #2); 3) meltwater derived from melting ice only (irrespective of melting snow or mass balance) (Nolin et al. 2010; Huss 2011, concept #1); 4) all meltwater derived from the glacier surface (Cogley et al. 2011, meltwater runoff); 5) total runoff from the glacier surface (meltwater runoff plus rain on the glacier) (Neal et al. 2010).
Total glacier runoff (Definitions 4 and 5 above) includes a contribution from annual mass balance, i.e. the sum of accumulation and ablation through a mass balance year (Definition 1), or what has historically been referred to as the “net” balance (Cogley et al. 2011). Indeed, annual balance has been shown to be an important driver of streamflow trends in glacierized basins, with periods of persistent negative annual balance resulting in statistically significant increases in streamflow (e.g., Pellicciotti et al. 2010). However, in maritime climates, anomalies in glacier runoff can be disconnected from annual balance because of the high variability in winter precipitation. For example, positive anomalies in winter accumulation can result in elevated levels of glacier runoff in times of positive annual mass balance (Thayyen and Gergan 2010).
Quantifying the impacts of changing glacier geometries (annual balance) on glacier runoff is essential for predicting future changes in streamflow in glacierized basins. However, determining the role that this component plays in total glacier runoff (Definition 5) requires consistent measurements of seasonal (or shorter period) mass balances, measurements of precipitation at multiple locations within a basin, and streamflow measurements in close proximity to a glacier’s terminus. Practical and logistical challenges associated with assembling such data sets typically preclude such partitioning. As a result, most analyses of the relationship between annual mass balance and streamflow rely on some component of model output to compute glacier runoff (e.g. Huss et al. 2008; Kaser et al. 2010). Ultimately, developing an understanding of how total glacier runoff will change in the future is critical for predicting downstream ecological impacts associated with changes in riverine fluxes of water, sediment, and solutes (e.g., metals and nutrients) to near-shore coastal ecosystems.
The purpose of this paper is to evaluate relationships among seasonal and annual glacier mass balances, glacier runoff and streamflow in two glacierized basins in different climate settings. We use long-term glacier mass balance and streamflow datasets from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Alaska Benchmark Glacier Program to compare and contrast glacier-streamflow interactions in a maritime climate (Wolverine Glacier) with those in a continental climate (Gulkana Glacier). Our overall goal is to improve our understanding of how glacier mass balance processes impact streamflow, ultimately improving our conceptual understanding of the future evolution of glacier runoff in continental and maritime climates.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2014
Title Assessing streamflow sensitivity to variations in glacier mass balance
DOI 10.1007/s10584-013-1042-7
Authors Shad O'Neel, Eran Hood, Anthony Arendt, Louis C. Sass
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Climatic Change
Index ID 70073500
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center Water

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