15 Mar 2024
 | 15 Mar 2024
Status: this preprint is open for discussion.

Separating snow and ice melt using water stable isotopes and glacio-hydrological modelling: towards improving the application of isotope analyses in highly glacierized catchments

Tom Müller, Mauro Fischer, Stuart N. Lane, and Bettina Schaefli

Abstract. Glacio-hydrological models are widely used for estimating current and future streamflow across spatial scales, utilizing various data sources, notably streamflow and snow/ice observations. However, modeling highly glacierized catchments poses challenges due to data scarcity and complex spatio-temporal meteorological conditions, leading to input data uncertainty and potential misestimation of snow and ice melt proportions. Some studies propose using water stable isotopes to estimate water shares of rain, snow, and ice in streamflow, yet the choice of isotopic composition of these water sources significantly impacts results. This study presents a combined isotopic and glacio-hydrological model to determine seasonal shares of snow and ice melt in streamflow for the Otemma catchment in the Swiss Alps. The model leverages available meteorological station data (air temperature, precipitation, and radiation), ice mass balance data and snow cover maps to model and automatically calibrate the catchment-scale snow and ice mass balances. The isotopic module, building on prior work by Ala-Aho et al. (2017), estimates seasonal isotopic compositions of precipitation, snow, and ice. The runoff generation and transfer model relies on a combined routing and reservoir approach and is calibrated based on measured streamflow and isotopic data.

Results reveal challenges in distinguishing snow and ice melt isotopic values in summer, rendering a reliable separation between the two sources difficult. The modelling of catchment-wide snow melt isotopic composition proves challenging due to uncertainties in precipitation lapse rate, mass exchanges during rain-on-snow events, and snow fractionation. The study delves into these processes, their impact on model results, and suggests guidelines for future models. It concludes that water stable isotopes alone cannot reliably separate snow and ice melt shares for temperate alpine glaciers. However, combining isotopes with glacio-hydrological modeling enhances hydrologic parameter identifiability, in particular those related to runoff transfer to the stream, and improves mass balance estimations.

Tom Müller, Mauro Fischer, Stuart N. Lane, and Bettina Schaefli

Status: open (until 02 May 2024)

Comment types: AC – author | RC – referee | CC – community | EC – editor | CEC – chief editor | : Report abuse
Tom Müller, Mauro Fischer, Stuart N. Lane, and Bettina Schaefli

Data sets

Water stable isotope, temperature and electrical conductivity dataset (snow, ice, rain, surface water, groundwater) from a high alpine catchment (2019-2021). Tom Müller

Stream discharge, stage, electrical conductivity & temperature dataset from Otemma glacier forefield, Switzerland (from July 2019 to October 2021) T. Müller and F. Miesen

Weather dataset from Otemma glacier forefield, Switzerland (from 14 July 2019 to 18 November 2021) Tom Müller

Model code and software

Combined isotopic and glacio-hydrological model developped for the Otemma glacierized catchment. T. Müller

Tom Müller, Mauro Fischer, Stuart N. Lane, and Bettina Schaefli


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Short summary
Based on extensive field observations in a highly glacierized catchment in the Swiss Alps, we develop a combined isotopic and glacio-hydrological model. We show that water stable isotopes may help to better constrain model parameters, especially those linked to water transfer. However, we highlight that separating snow and ice melt for temperate glaciers based on isotope mixing models alone is not advised and should only be considered if their isotopic signatures have clearly different values.