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The Presence of Hydraulic Barriers in Layered Snowpacks: TOUGH2 Simulations and Estimated Diversion Lengths


The distribution of snow across a landscape is an important component in the hydrologic cycle of many mountainous watersheds. Snow-dominated streams will vary in timing and volume of peak flow depending on when the snow melts and the lag time for the meltwater to reach the stream. As a snowpack accumulates during winter months, variable layers with different hydraulic properties can form hydraulic barriers. Hydraulic barriers were simulated in this study using data from three snow pits located in the Spring Creek Intensive Study Area (part of the NASA CLPX dataset) of Colorado. Data for north, south, and relatively flat aspect slopes were chosen to represent the variable metamorphism that occurs under different conditions. Simulations were conducted at steady-state infiltration rates of 0.1, 1.0, and 5.0 mm/h using the EOS9 module of TOUGH2. Additional diversion length estimates were calculated using existing soil physics approximations for capillary barriers. Results demonstrate that conditions are present within a layered snowpack to produce multiple permeability and capillary barriers, though capillary barriers were only identified in simulations on the north aspect snowpack. Diversion lengths of capillary barriers ranged from 1.0 m to greater than 25 m, and permeability barriers ranged from 2.5 to 9.5 m. Furthermore, a grain size of 0.6 mm or less in the layer above an interface is necessary to produce a capillary barrier. These results suggest that during snowmelt water has high potential to be redistributed downslope prior to infiltrating the ground surface. A better understanding of a snowpack as porous media will improve future hydrologic modeling.

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The authors would like to express appreciation to the three anonymous reviewers that gave thorough feedback on an earlier version of this manuscript. The comments offered by all of them have certainly improved the quality of this paper.

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Correspondence to Ryan W. Webb.

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Webb, R.W., Fassnacht, S.R., Gooseff, M.N. et al. The Presence of Hydraulic Barriers in Layered Snowpacks: TOUGH2 Simulations and Estimated Diversion Lengths. Transp Porous Med 123, 457–476 (2018).

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  • Snow hydrology
  • Hydraulic barriers
  • Capillary effects
  • Snow metamorphism