Learning about precipitation lapse rates from snow course data improves water balance modeling
Hydrology and Earth System Sciences
Abstract. Precipitation orographic enhancement is the result of both synoptic circulation and topography. Since high-elevation headwaters are often sparsely instrumented, the magnitude and distribution of this enhancement, as well as how they affect precipitation lapse rates, remain poorly understood. Filling this knowledge gap would allow a significant step ahead for hydrologic forecasting procedures and water management in general. Here, we hypothesized that spatially distributed, manual
... ibuted, manual measurements of snow depth (courses) could provide new insights into this process. We leveraged over 11 000 snow course data upstream of two reservoirs in the western European Alps (Aosta Valley, Italy) to estimate precipitation orographic enhancement in the form of lapse rates and, consequently, improve predictions of a snow hydrologic modeling chain (Flood-PROOFS). We found that snow water equivalent (SWE) above 3000 m a.s.l. (above sea level) was between 2 and 8.5 times higher than recorded cumulative seasonal precipitation below 1000 m a.s.l., with gradients up to 1000 mm w.e. km−1. Enhancement factors, estimated by blending precipitation gauge and snow course data, were consistent between the two hydropower headwaters (median values above 3000 m a.s.l. between 4.1 and 4.8). Including blended gauge course lapse rates in an iterative precipitation spatialization procedure allowed Flood-PROOFS to remedy underestimations both of SWE above 3000 m a.s.l. (up to 50 %) and – importantly – of precipitation vs. observed streamflow. Annual runoff coefficients based on blended lapse rates were also more consistent from year to year than those based on precipitation gauges alone (standard deviation of 0.06 and 0.19, respectively). Thus, snow courses bear a characteristic signature of orographic precipitation, which opens a window of opportunity for leveraging these data sets to improve our understanding of the mountain water budget. This is all the more important due to the essential role of high-elevation headwaters in supporting water security and ecosystem services worldwide.