Water storage capacity exceedance controls the timing and amount of runoff generated from Arctic hillslopes in Alaska, USA

Friday, 19 December 2014
Caitlin R Rushlow and Sarah Godsey, Idaho State University, Idaho Falls, ID, United States
Within the hydrologic community, there is a growing recognition that different runoff generation mechanisms can be unified within a “fill-and-spill” or storage exceedance paradigm. However, testing this unifying paradigm requires observing watersheds at a variety of scales under their full range of storage conditions, which are difficult to observe on typical human timescales in most environments. Polar watersheds underlain by continuous permafrost provide an opportunity to address these issues, because their total capacity for water storage follows a consistent annual cycle of expansion and contraction as a direct consequence of the extreme seasonality of solar energy availability. Cryotic conditions usually limit water storage to the surface snowpack and frozen soils, but summer warming allows the shallow subsurface to progressively thaw, providing a dynamic storage reservoir that is the convolved expression of several factors, including substrate hydrologic properties, watershed structure, and stochastic precipitation. We hypothesize that the amount of remaining water storage capacity in the system directly controls the amount and timing of runoff production for a given input. We test this prediction for six hillslope watersheds in Arctic Alaska over the 2013 and 2014 summer seasons from snowmelt in May through plant senescence in mid-August. We compare water table position to runoff produced from a given storm event or series of storm events. We find that no runoff is produced until a threshold water table position is exceeded; that is, as seasonal storage changes, runoff depends on watershed storage capacity exceedance. Preliminary results suggest that once that threshold is met, hydrologic response is proportional to storage exceedance. Thus, runoff production from Arctic hillslopes can be modeled from the surface energy balance and a reasonable estimate of shallow subsurface material properties. If storage exceedance is the key control on water export from Arctic watersheds, then the state of downstream aquatic ecosystems is strongly tied with upstream changes in surface energy balance and precipitation regimes. Future analyses will relate storage exceedance and water flux to biogeochemical cycling and solute fluxes in these hillslope watersheds.