Temperature signal in suspended sediment export from an Alpine catchment

Costa, Anna; Molnar, Peter; Stutenbecker, Laura Antonia; Bakker, Maarten; Silva, Tiago A.; Schlunegger, Fritz; Lane, Stuart N.; Loizeau, Jean-Luc; Girardclos, Stéphanie (2017). Temperature signal in suspended sediment export from an Alpine catchment. Hydrology and earth system sciences discussions, pp. 1-30. European Geosciences Union 10.5194/hess-2017-2

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Suspended sediment export from large Alpine catchments (> 1000 km2) over decadal timescales is sensitive to a number of factors, including long–term variations in climate, the activation–deactivation of different sediment sources (proglacial areas, hillslopes, etc.), transport through the river system, and potential anthropogenic impacts on the sediment flux (e.g. through impoundments and flow regulation). Here, we report on a marked increase in suspended sediment concentrations observed close to the outlet of the upper Rhône River Basin in the mid–1980s. This increase coincides with a statistically significant step–like increase in basin–wide mean air temperature. We explore the potential explanations of the suspended sediment rise in terms of discharge (transport capacity) change, and the activation of different sources of fine sediment (sediment supply) in the catchment by hydroclimatic forcing. Time series of precipitation and temperature–driven snowmelt, snow cover and ice–melt simulated with a spatially distributed degree–day model, together with erosive rainfall on snow–free surfaces, are tested as possible reasons for the rise in suspended sediment concentration. We demonstrate that the abrupt change in air temperature reduced snow cover and the contribution of snowmelt, and enhanced ice–melt. The results of statistical tests showed that the onset of increased ice–melt was likely to play a dominant role in the suspended sediment concentration rise in the mid–1980s. Temperature–driven enhanced melting of glaciers, which cover about 10 % of the catchment surface, can increase suspended sediment yields through increased runoff from sediment–rich proglacial areas, increased contribution of sediment–rich meltwater, and increased sediment supply in proglacial areas due to glacier recession. The reduced extent and duration of snow cover in the catchment may also have partly contributed to the rise in suspended sediment concentration through hillslope erosion by rainfall on snow free surfaces, and by reducing snow cover on the surface of the glaciers and thereby increasing meltwater production. Despite the rise in air temperature, changes in mean discharge in the mid–1980s were statistically insignificant, and their interpretation is complicated by hydropower reservoir management and the flushing operations at intakes. Thus, the results show that to explain changes in suspended sediment transport from large Alpine catchments it is necessary to include an understanding of the multitude of sediment sources involved together with the hydroclimatic conditioning of their activation (e.g. changes in precipitation, runoff, air temperature). This is particularly relevant for quantifying climate change and hydropower impacts on streamflow and sediment budgets in high Alpine catchments.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Original Article)


08 Faculty of Science > Institute of Geological Sciences

UniBE Contributor:

Stutenbecker, Laura Antonia, Schlunegger, Fritz


500 Science > 550 Earth sciences & geology




European Geosciences Union




Fritz Schlunegger

Date Deposited:

17 Jan 2018 14:50

Last Modified:

05 Dec 2022 15:08

Publisher DOI:






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