Stream chemistry and hydrologic pathways during snowmelt in a small watershed adjacent Lake Superior

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In regions with airborne contaminants and large snowpacks, there is concern over the impact that snowmelt chemical "pulses" - periods of sharp increase in meltwater solute concentration - could have on aquatic resources during spring runoff. A major variable in determining such an effect is the flow path of snowmelt solutes to the stream or lake. From December 1988, to late April 1989, the quality and quantity of precipitation, snowmelt, soil solution and streamwater were measured in a 176-ha gauged watershed on the south shore of Lake Superior. The main objectives were to (1) examine the change in flow path meltwaters take to the stream during distinct winter and spring hydrologic periods, (2) quantify ecosystem-level ion budgets prior to, during, and following snowmelt, and (3) examine if streamwater chemistry might be a sensitive indicator of change in ecosystem flow paths. Prior to peak snowmelt, groundwater made up 80% of stream discharge. During peak snowmelt, the groundwater level rose to the soil surface resulting in lateral water movement through near-surface macropores and as overland flow. Near the end of snowmelt, melt-waters exerted a piston action on deeper soil solution again increasing its relative contribution to streamwater discharge. Net groundwater drawdown during the study resulted in streamwater discharge about equal to precipitation inputs. Unfrozen soils and brief mid-winter thaws resulted in steady snowmelt throughout early and mid-winter. The snowpack lost > 50% of most ions prior to the period of major snowmelt and high stream discharge in late March and early April. Snowmelt and streamwater NO3- and NH4 pulses occurred before the period of overland flow and peak streamwater discharge (April 4-24). During overland flow, stream discharge of total N, P, DOC, and AI peaked. Nutrient budgets computed for distinct hydrologic periods were much more helpful in explaining ecosystem pathways and processes than were changes in solute concentration. For the study period, watershed base cation (CB) discharge was 23 times input and SO42- discharge exceeded input by 42%. H+ was the most strongly conserved ion with output < 0.2% of input. Also conserved were NH4+ with only 1.4% of input leaving the ecosystem and NO3- with output equal to 9.4% of input. © 1991 Kluwer Academic Publishers.

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