Seasonal snow cover decreases young water fractions in high Alpine catchments

Ceperley, Natalie; Zuecco, Giulia; Beria, Harsh; Carturan, Luca; Michelon, Anthony; Penna, Daniele; Larsen, Joshua; Schaefli, Bettina (2020). Seasonal snow cover decreases young water fractions in high Alpine catchments. Hydrological processes, 34(25), pp. 4794-4813. Wiley 10.1002/hyp.13937

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Abstract Estimation of young water fractions (Fyw), defined as the fraction of water in a stream younger than approximately 2?3 months, provides key information for water resource management in catchments where runoff is dominated by snowmelt. Knowing the average dependence of summer flow on winter precipitation is an essential context for comparing regional drought severity and provides the hydrological template for downstream water users and ecosystems. However, Fyw estimation based on seasonal signals of stable isotopes of oxygen and hydrogen has not yet explicitly addressed how to parsimoniously include the seasonal shift of water input from snow. Using experimental data from three high-elevation, Alpine catchments (one dominated by glacier and two by snow), we propose a framework to explicitly include the delays induced by snow storage into estimates of Fyw. Scrutinizing the key methodological choices when estimating Fyw from isotope data, we find that the methods used to construct precipitation input signals from sparse isotope samples can significantly impact Fyw. Given this sensitivity, our revised procedure estimates a distribution of Fyw values that incorporates a wide range of possible methodological choices and their uncertainties; it furthermore compares the commonly used amplitude ratio approach to a direct convolution approach, which circumvents the assumption that the isotopic signals have a sine curve shape, an assumption that is generally violated in snow-dominated environments. Our new estimates confirm that high-elevation Alpine catchments have low Fyw values, spanning from 8 to 11%. Such low values have previously been interpreted as the impact of seasonal snow storage alone, but our comparison of different Fyw estimation methods suggests that these low Fyw values result from a combination of both snow cover effects and longer storage in the subsurface. In contrast, in the highest elevation, glacier dominated catchment, Fyw is 3?4 times greater compared to the other two catchments, due to the lower storage and faster drainage processes. A future challenge, capturing spatio-temporal snowmelt isotope signals during winter baseflow and the snowmelt period, remains to improve constraints on the Fyw estimation technique.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Original Article)


08 Faculty of Science > Institute of Geography

UniBE Contributor:

Ceperley, Natalie Claire, Schaefli, Bettina


900 History > 910 Geography & travel








Bettina Schäfli

Date Deposited:

15 Jan 2021 08:19

Last Modified:

05 Dec 2022 15:45

Publisher DOI:


Additional Information:

Custom 1:
Date: 2020

Uncontrolled Keywords:

Alpine catchment degree-day model snow hydrology snowmelt stable isotopes young water fraction




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