Articles | Volume 5, issue 4
Research article
02 Dec 2011
Research article |  | 02 Dec 2011

Glacier contribution to streamflow in two headwaters of the Huasco River, Dry Andes of Chile

S. Gascoin, C. Kinnard, R. Ponce, S. Lhermitte, S. MacDonell, and A. Rabatel

Abstract. Quantitative assessment of glacier contribution to present-day streamflow is a prerequisite to the anticipation of climate change impact on water resources in the Dry Andes. In this paper we focus on two glaciated headwater catchments of the Huasco Basin (Chile, 29° S). The combination of glacier monitoring data for five glaciers (Toro 1, Toro 2, Esperanza, Guanaco, Estrecho and Ortigas) with five automatic streamflow records at sites with glacier coverage of 0.4 to 11 % allows the estimation of the mean annual glacier contribution to discharge between 2003/2004 and 2007/2008 hydrological years. In addition, direct manual measurements of glacier runoff were conducted in summer at the snouts of four glaciers, which provide the instantaneous contribution of glacier meltwater to stream runoff during summer. The results show that the mean annual glacier contribution to streamflow ranges between 3.3 and 23 %, which is greater than the glaciated fraction of the catchments. We argue that glacier contribution is partly enhanced by the effect of snowdrift from the non-glacier area to the glacier surface. Glacier mass loss is evident over the study period, with a mean of −0.84 m w.e. yr−1 for the period 2003/2004–2007/2008, and also contributes to increase glacier runoff. An El Niño episode in 2002 resulted in high snow accumulation, modifying the hydrological regime and probably reducing the glacier contribution in favor of seasonal snowmelt during the subsequent 2002/2003 hydrological year. At the hourly timescale, summertime glacier contributions are highly variable in space and time, revealing large differences in effective melting rates between glaciers and glacierets (from 1 mm w.e. h−1 to 6 mm w.e. h−1).