Using ground penetrating radar to assess the variability of snow water equivalent and melt in a mixed canopy forest, Northern Colorado

Abstract

Snow is an important environmental variable in headwater systems that controls hydrological processes such as streamflow, groundwater recharge, and evapotranspiration. These processes will be affected by both the amount of snow available for melt and the rate at which it melts. Snow water equivalent (SWE) and snowmelt are known to vary within complex subalpine terrain due to terrain and canopy influences. This study assesses this variability during the melt season using ground penetrating radar to survey multiple plots in northwestern Colorado near a snow telemetry (SNOTEL) station. The plots include south aspect and flat aspect slopes with open, coniferous (subalpine fir, Abies lasiocarpa and engelman spruce, Picea engelmanii), and deciduous (aspen, populous tremuooides) canopy cover. Results show the high variability for both SWE and loss of SWE during spring snowmelt in 2014. The coefficient of variation for SWE tended to increase with time during snowmelt whereas loss of SWE remained similar. Correlation lengths for SWE were between two and five meters with melt having correlation lengths between two and four meters. The SNOTEL station regularly measured higher SWE values relative to the survey plots but was able to reasonably capture the overall mean loss of SWE during melt. Ground Penetrating Radar methods can improve future investigations with the advantage of non-destructive sampling and the ability to estimate depth, density, and SWE.

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Acknowledgements

I would like to acknowledge Dr. Dennis Harry at Colorado State University who allowed me to borrow the Ground Penetrating Radar equipment and taught the course in geophysical methods that allowed me to interpret this data. This study would not have been possible otherwise. I would also like to recognize the two anonymous reviewers whose comments greatly improved the analysis and writing of this paper from its original version.

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Correspondence to Ryan W. Webb.

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Ryan W. Webb received his Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from Colorado State University in 2016 with a focus in hydrologic science and engineering. He has a range of experience in engineering consulting work for water resource and geotechnical projects. He has also been happily involved with multiple EngineersWithout Borders projects in Bolivia and El Salvador concerning drinking water quality for local communities. Dr. Webb is currently a postdoctoral fellow researching the hydrologic controls on water flowing through snow at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder. More information can be found concerning Dr. Webb’s research and other professional and academic experiences on his website: webbhydrology.weebly.com or by emailing him at ryan.w.webb@colorado.edu.

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Webb, R.W. Using ground penetrating radar to assess the variability of snow water equivalent and melt in a mixed canopy forest, Northern Colorado. Front. Earth Sci. 11, 482–495 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11707-017-0645-0

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Keywords

  • headwaters
  • snowmelt
  • snow water equivalent
  • ground penetrating rdar
  • SNOTEL