Climate change threatens water resources in snowmelt-dependent regions by altering the fraction of snow and rain and spurring an earlier snowmelt season. The bulk of hydrological research has focused on forecasting response in streamflow volumes and timing to a shrinking snowpack; however, the degree to which subsurface storage offsets the loss of snow storage in various alpine geologic settings, i.e. the hydrogeologic buffering capacity, is still largely unknown. We address this research need by assessing the affects of climate change on storage and runoff generation for two distinct hydrogeologic settings present in alpine systems: a low storage granitic and a greater storage volcanic hillslope. We use a physically based integrated hydrologic model fully coupled to a land surface model to run a base scenario and then three progressive warming scenarios, and account for the shifts in each component of the water budget. For hillslopes with greater water retention, the larger storage volcanic hillslope buffered streamflow volumes and timing, but at the cost of greater reductions in groundwater storage relative to the low storage granite hillslope. We found that the results were highly sensitive to the unsaturated zone retention parameters, which in the case of alpine systems can be a mix of matrix or fracture flow. The presence of fractures and thus less retention in the unsaturated zone significantly decreased the reduction in recharge and runoff for the volcanic hillslope in climate warming scenarios. This approach highlights the importance of incorporating physically based subsurface flow in to alpine hydrology models, and our findings provide ways forward to arrive at a conceptual model that is both consistent with geology and hydrologic principles.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Water Science and Technology
- climate change
- integrated modelling
- snowmelt dominated