Because snowmelt processes are spatially complex, point measurements, particularly in mountainous regions, are often inadequate to resolve basin-scale characteristics. Satellite measurements provide good spatial sampling but are often infrequent in time, particularly during cloudy weather. Fortunately, hourly measurements of river discharge provide another widely available, but as yet underutilized, source of information, providing direct information on basin output at a fine temporal scale. The hour of maximum discharge recorded each day reflects the travel time between peak melt and the time most water reaches the gauge. Traditional theories, based on numerical models of melt-water percolation through a snowpack and localized, small-basin observations, report that the hour of daily maximum flow becomes earlier as the snowpack thins and matures, reflecting shorter travel times for surface melt to reach the base of the snowpack. However, an examination of hourly discharge from 100 basins in the Western United States, ranging in size from 1.3 km2 to 10,813 km2, reveals a more complex situation. The sequences of seasonal evolution of the hour of maximum discharge are unique to each basin, but within a given basin are remarkably consistent between years, regardless of the size of the snowpack. This seems to imply that basin topography strongly influences the timing of peak flow. In most of the basins examined, at the end of the melt season, the hour of maximum discharge shifts to later in the day, reflecting increased travel times as the snowline retreats to higher elevations.
Additional publication details
Snow, topography, and the diurnal cycle in streamflow