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The effect of frozen soil on snowmelt runoff at Sleepers River, Vermont

January 1, 1999

Soil frost depth has been monitored at the Sleepers River Research Watershed in northeastern Vermont since 1984. Soil frost develops every winter, particularly in open fields, but its depth varies greatly from year to year in inverse relation to snow depth. During the 15 years of record at a benchmark mid-elevation open site, the annual maximum frost depth varied from 70 to 390 mm. We empirically tested the hypothesis that frozen soil prevents infiltration and recharge, thereby causing an increased runoff ratio (streamflow/(rain+snowmelt)) during the snowmelt hydrograph rise and a decreased runoff ratio during snowmelt recession. The hypothesis was not supported at the 111 km2 W-5 catchment; there was no significant correlation of the runoff ratio with the seasonal maximum frost depth for either the pre-peak or post-peak period. In an analysis of four events, however, the presence of frost promoted a large and somewhat quicker response to rainfall relative to the no-frost condition, although snow cover caused a much greater time-to-peak regardless of frost status. For six years of flow and frost depth measured at the 59 ha agricultural basin W-2, the hypothesis appeared to be supported. The enhancement of runoff due to soil frost is evident on small plots and in extreme events, such as rain on frozen snow-free soil. In the northeastern USA and eastern Canada, the effect is often masked in larger catchments by several confounding factors, including storage of meltwater in the snowpack, variability in snowmelt timing due to elevational and aspect differences, interspersed forested land where frost may be absent, and the timing of soil thawing relative to the runoff peak.

Publication Year 1999
Title The effect of frozen soil on snowmelt runoff at Sleepers River, Vermont
DOI 10.1002/(SICI)1099-1085(199909)13:12/13<1843::AID-HYP879>3.0.CO;2-G
Authors J. B. Shanley, A. Chalmers
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Hydrological Processes
Index ID 70021325
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse