Partitioning snowmelt and rainfall in the critical zone: effects of climate type and soil properties
Streamflow generation and deep groundwater recharge may be vulnerable to loss of snow, making it important to quantify how snowmelt is partitioned between soil storage, deep drainage, evapotranspiration, and runoff. Based on previous findings, we hypothesize that snowmelt produces greater streamflow and deep drainage than rainfall and that this effect is greatest in dry climates. To test this hypothesis we examine how snowmelt and rainfall partitioning vary with climate and soil properties using a physically based variably saturated subsurface flow model, HYDRUS-1D. We developed model experiments using observed climate from mountain regions and artificial climate inputs that convert all precipitation to rain, and then evaluated how climate variability affects partitioning in soils with different hydraulic properties and depths. Results indicate that event-scale runoff is higher for snowmelt than for rainfall due to higher antecedent moisture and input rates in both wet and dry climates. Annual runoff also increases with snowmelt fraction, whereas deep drainage is not correlated with snowmelt fraction. Deep drainage is less affected by changes from snowmelt to rainfall because it is controlled by deep soil moisture changes over longer timescales. Soil texture modifies daily wetting and drying patterns but has limited effect on annual water budget partitioning, whereas increases in soil depth lead to lower runoff and greater deep drainage. Overall these results indicate that runoff may be substantially reduced with seasonal snowpack decline in all climates, whereas the effects of snowpack decline on deep drainage are less consistent. These mechanisms help explain recent observations of streamflow sensitivity to changing snowpack and highlight the importance of developing strategies to plan for changes in water budgets in areas most at risk for shifts from snow to rain.