Towards an energy-based runoff generation theory for tundra landscapes

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Runoff hydrology has a large historical context concerned with the mechanisms and pathways of how water is transferred to the stream network. Despite this, there has been relatively little application of runoff generation theory to cold regions, particularly the expansive treeless environments where tundra vegetation, permafrost, and organic soils predominate. Here, the hydrological cycle is heavily influenced by 1) snow storage and release, 2) permafrost and frozen ground that restricts drainage, and 3) the water holding capacity of organic soils. While previous research has adapted temperate runoff generation concepts such as variable source area, transmissivity feedback, and fill-and-spill, there has been no runoff generation concept developed explicitly for tundra environments. Here, we propose an energy-based framework for delineating runoff contributing areas for tundra environments. Aerodynamic energy and roughness height control the end-of-winter snow water equivalent, which varies orders of magnitude across the landscape. Radiant energy in turn controls snowmelt and ground thaw rates. The combined spatial pattern of aerodynamic and radiant energy control flow pathways and the runoff contributing areas of the catchment, which are persistent on a year-to-year basis. While ground surface topography obviously plays an important role in the assessment of contributing areas, the close coupling of energy to the hydrological cycles in arctic and alpine tundra environments dictates a new paradigm.

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