In the Central Rocky Mountains, snowfall dominates precipitation. Airborne contaminants retained in the snowpack can affect high elevation surface water chemistry during snowmelt. At the Fraser Experimental Forest (FEF), located west of the Continental Divide in Central Colorado, snowmelt dominates the annual hydrograph, and accounts for >95% of annual stream water discharge. During the winters of 1989-1993, we measured precipitation inputs, snowpack water equivalent (SWE) and ion content, and stream water chemistry every 7-10 days along a 3150-3500 m elevation gradient in the subalpine and alpine Lexen Creek watershed. The study objectives were to (1) quantify the distribution of SWE and snowpack chemical content with elevation and aspect, (2) quantify snowmelt rates, temperature of soil, snowpack, and air with elevation and aspect, and (3) use change in upstream-downstream water chemistry during snowmelt to better define alpine and subalpine flowpaths. The SWE increased with elevation (P < 0.001) and was greater on NE aspects (P < 0.05). Subalpine soils were unfrozen. Snowmelt occurred throughout winter at low elevation (3150 m), SE aspect stations. By snowpack peak water equivalent (PWE), the snowpack lost about a third (0.24 m) of its moisture. The subalpine snowpack had warm (> - 3??C) temperatures throughout winter which resulted in significant snowpack ion loss. By snowpack PWE in mid May, the snowpack had lost almost half the cumulative precipitation H+, NH4+, and SO42- inputs and a third of the NO3- input. Windborne soil particulate inputs late in winter increased snowpack base cation content. Variation in subalpine SWE and snowpack ion content with elevation and aspect, and wind redistribution of snowfall in the alpine resulted in large year-to-year differences in the timing and magnitude of SWE, PWE, and snowpack ion content. The alpine stream water ion concentrations changed little during snowmelt indicating meltwater passed quickly through surface porous soils and was well mixed before entering the stream. Conversely, subalpine stream water chemistry was diluted during snowmelt suggesting much melt water moved to the stream as shallow subsurface lateral flow. Published by Elsevier Science B.V.
Additional publication details
Processes regulating watershed chemical export during snowmelt, fraser experimental forest, Colorado