Variability in observed stable water isotopes in snowpack across a mountainous watershed in Colorado

Rosemary W.H. Carroll, Jeffery Deems, Reed Maxwell, Matthias Sprenger, Wendy Brown, Alexander Newman, Curtis Beutler, Markus Bill, Susan S. Hubbard, Kenneth H. Williams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Isotopic information from 81 snowpits was collected over a 5-year period in a large, Colorado watershed. Data spans gradients in elevation, aspect, vegetation, and seasonal climate. They are combined with overlapping campaigns for water isotopes in precipitation and snowmelt, and a land-surface model for detailed estimates of snowfall and climate at sample locations. Snowfall isotopic inputs, describe the majority of δ18O snowpack variability. Aspect is a secondary control, with slightly more enriched conditions on east and north facing slopes. This is attributed to preservation of seasonally enriched snowfall and vapour loss in the early winter. Sublimation, expressed by decreases in snowpack d-excess in comparison to snowfall contributions, increases at low elevation and when seasonal temperature and solar radiation are high. At peak snow accumulation, post-depositional fractionation appears to occur in the top 25 ± 14% of the snowpack due to melt-freeze redistribution of lighter isotopes deeper into the snowpack and vapour loss to the atmosphere during intermittent periods of low relative humidity and high windspeed. Relative depth of fractionation increases when winter daytime temperatures are high and winter precipitation is low. Once isothermal, snowpack isotopic homogenization and enrichment was observed with initial snowmelt isotopically depleted in comparison to snowpack and enriching over time. The rate of δ18O increase (d-excess decrease) in snowmelt was 0.02‰ per day per 100-m elevation loss. Isotopic data suggests elevation dictates snowpack and snowmelt evolution by controlling early snow persistence (or absence), isotopic lapse rates in precipitation and the ratio of energy to snow availability. Hydrologic tracer studies using stable water isotopes in basins of large topographic relief will require adjustment for these elevational controls to properly constrain stream water sourcing from snowmelt.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere14653
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Water Science and Technology


  • Colorado
  • d-excess
  • mountains
  • snowfall
  • snowmelt
  • snowpack
  • stable water isotopes


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