Liquid water dynamics in unsaturated snow: the role of lateral flow
Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 11:50 AM
The movement of liquid water in unsaturated snow is a complex and highly heterogeneous process, due to positive feedback mechanisms that lead to distinct flow pathways. A combination of gravitational and capillary forces, combined with small scale spatial variability, causes liquid water to concentrate into sub-meter vertical channels and along stratigraphic boundaries that lead to complicated patterns of volumetric water content. Hydraulic conductivity increases significantly with liquid water content, leading to preferential flow along established pathways. We designed controlled experiments to explore the role of slope-parallel flow of liquid water in unsaturated snow, along layer boundaries, to improve understanding of potential lateral mass redistribution during rapid melt and rain-on-snow events on ice sheets, glaciers and in seasonal snow. We characterized snow structure and monitored the spatiotemporal distribution of liquid water during snowmelt and rain-on-snow events using high-resolution radars, micropenetrometry, near-infrared and time-lapse photography, in-situ dielectric probes, and stable isotopes. We used the seasonal snowpack as a natural laboratory, and collected water outflow with lysimeter arrays designed to quantify the amount of water moving laterally. A co-located full energy-balance weather station provides forcing inputs for modeling, and the degree of lateral flow is also evaluated by monitoring the evolution of soil moisture with a permenantly installed ERT array and multiple dielectric probes in the soil at the base of the snowpack. Improved understanding of liquid water dynamics in unsaturated snow and firn is required for accurate modeling of the percolation zone mass balance on ice sheets and polar glaciers, the timing of wet snow avalanches, and flooding caused by mid-winter rain on seasonal snow.