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Climate change affects precipitation phase, which can propagate into changes in streamflow timing and magnitude. This study examines how the spatial and temporal distribution of rainfall and snowmelt affects discharge in rain–snow transition zones. These zones experience large year-to-year variations in precipitation phase, cover a significant area of mountain catchments globally, and might extend to higher elevations under future climate change. We used observations from 11 weather stations and snow depths measured from one aerial lidar survey to force a spatially distributed snowpack model (iSnobal/Automated Water Supply Model) in a semiarid, 1.8 km2 headwater catchment. We focused on surface water input (SWI; the summation of rainfall and snowmelt on the soil) for 4 years with contrasting climatological conditions (wet, dry, rainy, and snowy) and compared simulated SWI to measured discharge. A strong spatial agreement between snow depth from the lidar survey and model (r2 = 0.88) was observed, with a median Nash–Sutcliffe efficiency (NSE) of 0.65 for simulated and measured snow depths at snow depth stations for all modeled years (0.75 for normalized snow depths). The spatial pattern of SWI was consistent between the 4 years, with north-facing slopes producing 1.09–1.25 times more SWI than south-facing slopes, and snowdrifts producing up to 6 times more SWI than the catchment average. Annual discharge in the catchment was not significantly correlated with the fraction of precipitation falling as snow; instead, it was correlated with the magnitude of precipitation and spring snow and rain. Stream cessation depended on total and spring precipitation, as well as on the melt-out date of the snowdrifts. These results highlight the importance of the heterogeneity of SWI at the rain–snow transition zone for streamflow generation and cessation, and emphasize the need for spatially distributed modeling or monitoring of both snowpack and rainfall dynamics.


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Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.