The effect of seasonal soil frost on the alpine groundwater recharge including climate change aspects

In alpine areas, the snow cover plays an important role as a water reservoir. Water is stored as snow over the winter and released in spring, recharging mountain aquifers through infiltration. These aquifers are essential, especially for supplying water for human activities during dry seasons. Numerous studies have shown that locally soil frost can drastically reduce the water infiltration. However, we know much less about the hydrological impact of soil frost at a larger scale, in particular with regard to groundwater recharge. This was our motivation for initiating an extensive field experiment in the southern Swiss Alps. Several methods at different spatial scales were adapted to explore (a) the local effect of a partially frozen ground on the snowmelt discharge in an alpine area, (b) the key processes influencing groundwater recharge during snowmelt periods, such as snow cover and soil frost evolution, snowmelt water runoff types, (c) the large-scale effect of soil frost on the aquifer recharge, and (d) winter situations that are critical with respect to flooding. In order to take into account spatial, altitudinal and climatic differences, the field study was run for two winter seasons at Gd St Bernard (2500 m), a site with very high winter precipitation and strong winds, and at Hannigalp above Grächen (2100 m), a ski resort with a rather dry winter climate. The different components of the soil water balance (lateral runoff, deep percolation, liquid soil water content) were measured on delimited plots of 5 m2. Additionally, a dye tracer experiment visualized the snowmelt infiltration patterns into the frozen, respectively non-frozen ground. At Gd St Bernard, investigations of the liquid water content and the soil temperature were additionally conducted at two secondary sites, differing in their orientation, so as to gain a better insight of the spatial soil frost expansion. Finally, an analysis of the water-table variation at the village of Grächen (some 500 m below Hannigalp) during the snowmelt was carried out for a 10-year time period, including our experimental seasons. We complemented our field investigations by using a numerical soil-snow-atmosphere transfer model that simulates the seasonal development of the soil frost and the snow cover, as well as lateral and vertical water flow in the top soil. This model was used as an upper boundary condition to a 2-D groundwater model, to calculate the outlet flow at the base of a simplified alpine aquifer. The two winters investigated had contrasting meteorological conditions, which resulted in intriguing differences and similarities with respect to the soil physical conditions: the first one having a thick snowpack and hardly any soil frost, and the second one with hardly any snow until January and a deep and persistent soil frost. In spite of a very thick snowpack, the water balance measurements from winter 2000/2001 showed for both sites zero to low surface and subsurface flow due to the fact that soil frost was local and the soil permeability high. During the next winter, approximately 25% of the total meltwater run off laterally. The soil infiltration capacity was mainly reduced by the presence of a basal ice sheet, caused by the freezing of meltwater after a mid-winter snowmelt event. The field data were used to calibrate and validate a physically-based one-dimensional model. To allow an accurate parameter setting for the water repellent soil of Hannigalp, laboratory infiltration experiments on soil columns were additionally carried out. Using the resultant information, the model predicted correctly most measured soil parameters, in particular good matching was observed between measured and simulated snowmelt discharge. At Gd St Bernard, the simulated results were less satisfactory, especially during the first winter, when large discrepancies were noted between measured and simulated lateral runoff. Apart from the shortage in the soil parameter characterization, the deviation was a result of the simplified description of the experimental field. The model was, for example, not able to simulate surface runoff generated by a steep slope under unfrozen conditions, as the soil surface is considered by the model to be flat. Nevertheless, results were accurate enough to reproduce the occurrences of snowmelt events and the accumulated values of snow-melt discharge pathways under frozen conditions. Long-term weather data were used to simulate the soil frost depth at both sites. The simulation results showed that the probability of the occurrence of frozen soils was lowest on slopes with south or north exposure. On southerly exposed plots, the heat stored in the soil during the summer inhibited the development of deep and persistent soil frost, while most pore ice thawed due to underneath heating. On north plots, the building of soil frost was rare, as early snowfall insulated the ground from the atmosphere. However, during snow-poor winters, the frost penetrated deep into the ground, and the low underneath heat flux at that location hardly affected the frost depth until snowmelt. The snow depth and average soil temperature were hence the two components affecting the frost depth extent. The altitude soil frost variation was related to the spatial extent of these two components. The higher the altitude, the higher the precipitation and the lower the mean air/surface temperature. Simulating the whole Grächen recharge area, seasonal soil frost was rare between 1800 m and 2000 m, as the snowpack was thick enough to insulate the ground, and the soil was warm enough to inhibit deep soil frost. In lower areas, the shallow snowpack enabled the soil to freeze during most winters, whereas at higher areas, deep and persistent soil frost was simulated due to the low underneath heating. A 10-year water-table depth record was used to examine possible large-scale effects of seasonal soil frost. We noted that the water-table rise at snowmelt was lowest at the end of winters with extensive soil frost. However, such winters were characterized by low precipitation, and reduced snow cover. In contrast, winters with little soil frost were mostly snow rich. Consequently, only a reduced number of winters were directly comparable. Considering these winters, the reduction in the water-table rise at snowmelt due to seasonal soil frost varied only between 10 and 30%, as, during snowmelt, most meltwater was able to re-infiltrate into the very permeable ground in lower unfrozen areas. We may assume that a soil with a smaller infiltration capacity can increase the influence of the soil frost on the aquifer recharge. Finally, we investigated the effect of a changing climate on the hydraulic and thermic regimes at different altitudes in the area of Grächen. We assume an increase in the air temperature of 2°C generates deeper soil frost on lower areas, as the resultant smaller snow cover does not insulate the soil from the atmosphere any more. However, it does reduce the soil frost on higher, snow rich areas, due to the warmer air temperature. As a whole, minor changes were simulated on the mean groundwater recharge, as more/less meltwater was able to infiltrate in higher/lower areas. By increasing additionally the precipitation by 15%, the soil frost diminished slightly over the whole catchment. By combining both climate change scenarios, we may expect an increase in extreme events, as, on the one hand, the rainfall intensity increases, and, on the other hand, rain on snow events over frozen soils occurs more often in lower areas. In practice, this work shows the importance of better investigating the hydrothermal behaviour of alpine regions. Such a knowledge is necessary, as more and more efforts are put into managing efficiently, durably and globally the available water resources. This work stresses also the necessity to consider seasonally soil frost in alpine risk management. As an example, flooding is mostly a consequence of strong rain precipitation at high altitudes combined with heavy snowmelt. Obviously, the risk of extreme runoff events increases during frozen winters, when the soil infiltration capacity is further reduced by the soil ice. Also, it has been shown that unstable slopes are mostly related to specific hydrogeological situations, like strong precipitation, which induces a sharp increase in the underneath water circulation. The melt water in spring is hence a potential activating factor, and a frozen soil may reduce the risk of sliding, as less water infiltrates into the ground.

    Thèse École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne EPFL, n° 2709 (2003)
    Section de génie civil
    Faculté de l'environnement naturel, architectural et construit
    Institut des infrastructures, des ressources et de l'environnement
    Laboratoire de géologie de l'ingénieur et de l'environnement
    Jury: Peter Egger, Peter Germann, Per-Erik Jansson, Manfred Staehli, Pascal Turberg, Laurent Vulliet, Frédéric Zuber

    Public defense: 2003-1-15


    Record created on 2005-03-16, modified on 2016-08-08

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