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Influence of climate on alpine stream chemistry and water sources

May 30, 2018

The resilience of alpine/subalpine watersheds may be viewed as the resistance of streamflow or stream chemistry to change under varying climatic conditions, which is governed by the relative size (volume) and transit time of surface and subsurface water sources. Here, we use end‐member mixing analysis in Andrews Creek, an alpine stream in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, from water year 1994 to 2015, to explore how the partitioning of water sources and associated hydrologic resilience change in response to climate. Our results indicate that four water sources are significant contributors to Andrews Creek, including snow, rain, soil water, and talus groundwater. Seasonal patterns in source‐water contributions reflected the seasonal hydrologic cycle, which is driven by the accumulation and melting of seasonal snowpack. Flushing of soil water had a large effect on stream chemistry during spring snowmelt, despite making only a small contribution to streamflow volume. Snow had a large influence on stream chemistry as well, contributing large amounts of water with low concentrations of weathering products. Interannual patterns in end‐member contributions reflected responses to drought and wet periods. Moderate and significant correlations exist between annual end‐member contributions and regional‐scale climate indices (the Palmer Drought Severity Index, the Palmer Hydrologic Drought Index, and the Modified Palmer Drought Severity Index). From water year 1994 to 2015, the percent contribution from the talus‐groundwater end member to Andrews Creek increased an average of 0.5% per year (p < 0.0001), whereas the percent contributions from snow plus rain decreased by a similar amount (p = 0.001). Our results show how water and solute sources in alpine environments shift in response to climate variability and highlight the role of talus groundwater and soil water in providing hydrologic resilience to the system.