Twenty-first century changes in the hydrology, glaciers, and permafrost of the Susitna Basin, Alaska
Abstract:In the face of climate change, the hydrology of the upper Susitna Basin in South-Central Alaska is expected to change. This would impact the quantity and seasonality of river flow into a proposed hydroelectric dam, if it were to be built. The upper Susitna Basin catchment area is 13,289 km², ranging from 450-4000 m a.s.l. It is 4% glacierized and is characterized by sparse vegetation, discontinuous permafrost, and little human development. We present field measurements and results from hydrological modeling.
We present new field data from spring and fall 2014 along with field measurements from the 1980’s, 2012, and 2013. These data are used to calibrate and validate the hydrological model. Traditional glacier mass balance measurements show that the glaciers lost more mass in 2012 and 2013 than in 1981, 1982, or 1983. Springtime snow radar surveys of the glaciers allow us to extrapolate from point measurements of snow depth to the whole glacier area. Snow depth measurements at tundra sites as well as tundra vegetation and soil characterizations help us choose appropriate model parameters for the tundra portions of the basin. Meteorological data (temperature, humidity, and precipitation) from over 20 stations in the basin show the summertime temperature lapse rate to be smaller over glacier surfaces compared to ice-free surfaces. Precipitation is highly variable across the basin. Energy balance measurements from two meteorological stations, one located on West Fork Glacier and one on a nunatak near Susitna Glacier, are used for more detailed modeling of summertime glacier melt and runoff.
We run a physically-based hydrological model to project 21st century river discharge: Water Flow and Balance Simulation Model (WaSiM). Climate inputs come from a CCSM CMIP5 RCP6.0 scenario downscaled to a 20km-5km nested grid using the Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) Model. From 2010-2029 to 2080-2099 the basin-wide mean-annual temperature will rise 2.5 degrees and total precipitation will rise 2%, with a 13% decrease in snowfall and a 20% increase in rainfall. Preliminary WaSiM runs indicate that glaciers will retreat, evapotranspiration will increase, and permafrost will thaw. Annual runoff will remain relatively steady, but the timing of the peak spring runoff will shift to an earlier date.