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Volume 22, issue 6 | Copyright
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 22, 3421-3434, 2018
© Author(s) 2018. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Research article 22 Jun 2018

Research article | 22 Jun 2018

Hydroclimatic control on suspended sediment dynamics of a regulated Alpine catchment: a conceptual approach

Anna Costa, Daniela Anghileri, and Peter Molnar Anna Costa et al.
  • Institute of Environmental Engineering, ETH Zurich, 8093 Zurich, Switzerland

Abstract. We analyse the control of hydroclimatic factors on suspended sediment concentration (SSC) in Alpine catchments by differentiating among the potential contributions of erosion and suspended sediment transport driven by erosive rainfall, defined as liquid precipitation over snow-free surfaces, ice melt from glacierized areas, and snowmelt on hillslopes. We account for the potential impact of hydropower by intercepting sediment fluxes originated in areas diverted to hydropower reservoirs, and by considering the contribution of hydropower releases to SSC. We obtain the hydroclimatic variables from daily gridded datasets of precipitation and temperature, implementing a degree-day model to simulate spatially distributed snow accumulation and snow–ice melt. We estimate hydropower releases by a conceptual approach with a unique virtual reservoir regulated on the basis of a target-volume function, representing normal reservoir operating conditions throughout a hydrological year. An Iterative Input Selection algorithm is used to identify the variables with the highest predictive power for SSC, their explained variance, and characteristic time lags. On this basis, we develop a hydroclimatic multivariate rating curve (HMRC) which accounts for the contributions of the most relevant hydroclimatic input variables mentioned above. We calibrate the HMRC with a gradient-based nonlinear optimization method and we compare its performance with a traditional discharge-based rating curve. We apply the approach in the upper Rhône Basin, a large Swiss Alpine catchment heavily regulated by hydropower. Our results show that the three hydroclimatic processes – erosive rainfall, ice melt, and snowmelt – are significant predictors of mean daily SSC, while hydropower release does not have a significant explanatory power for SSC. The characteristic time lags of the hydroclimatic variables correspond to the typical flow concentration times of the basin. Despite not including discharge, the HMRC performs better than the traditional rating curve in reproducing SSC seasonality, especially during validation at the daily scale. While erosive rainfall determines the daily variability of SSC and extremes, ice melt generates the highest SSC per unit of runoff and represents the largest contribution to total suspended sediment yield. Finally, we show that the HMRC is capable of simulating climate-driven changes in fine sediment dynamics in Alpine catchments. In fact, HMRC can reproduce the changes in SSC in the past 40 years in the Rhône Basin connected to air temperature rise, even though the simulated changes are more gradual than those observed. The approach presented in this paper, based on the analysis of the hydroclimatic control of suspended sediment concentration, allows the exploration of climate-driven changes in fine sediment dynamics in Alpine catchments. The approach can be applied to any Alpine catchment with a pluvio-glacio-nival hydrological regime and adequate hydroclimatic datasets.

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Short summary
We analyse the control of hydroclimatic factors – erosive rainfall, ice melt, and snowmelt – on suspended sediment concentration (SSC) of Alpine catchments regulated by hydropower, and we develop a multivariate hydroclimatic–informed rating curve. We show that while erosive rainfall determines the variability of SSC, ice melt generates the highest contribution to SSC per unit of runoff. This approach allows the exploration of climate–driven changes in fine sediment dynamics in Alpine catchments.
We analyse the control of hydroclimatic factors – erosive rainfall, ice melt, and snowmelt –...