Understanding the hydrological response of a headwater-dominated catchment by analysis of distributed surface-subsurface interactions

We computationally explore the relationship between surface-subsurface exchange and hydrological response in a headwater-dominated high elevation, mountainous catchment in East River Watershed, Colorado, USA. In order to isolate the effect of surface-subsurface exchange on the hydrological response, we compare three model variations that differ only in soil permeability. Traditional methods of hydrograph analysis that have been developed for headwater catchments may fail to properly characterize catchments, where catchment response is tightly coupled to headwater inflow. Analyzing the spatially distributed hydrological response of such catchments gives additional information on the catchment functioning. Thus, we compute hydrographs, hydrological indices, and spatio-temporal distributions of hydrological variables. The indices and distributions are then linked to the hydrograph at the outlet of the catchment. Our results show that changes in the surface-subsurface exchange fluxes trigger different flow regimes, connectivity dynamics, and runoff generation mechanisms inside the catchment, and hence, affect the distributed hydrological response. Further, changes in surface-subsurface exchange rates lead to a nonlinear change in the degree of connectivity-quantified through the number of disconnected clusters of ponding water-in the catchment. Although the runoff formation in the catchment changes significantly, these changes do not significantly alter the aggregated streamflow hydrograph. This hints at a crucial gap in our ability to infer catchment function from aggregated signatures. We show that while these changes in distributed hydrological response may not always be observable through aggregated hydrological signatures, they can be quantified through the use of indices of connectivity.


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