October 1, 2022
Journal Article

The understudied winter: evidence of how precipitation differences affect stream metabolism in a headwater


Climate change is causing pronounced shifts during winter in the US, including shortening the snow season, reducing snowpack, and altering the timing and volume of snowmelt-related runoff. These changes in winter precipitation patterns affect in-stream freeze-thaw cycles, including ice and snow cover, and can trigger direct and indirect effects on in-stream physical, chemical, and biological processes in ~60% of river basins in the Northern Hemisphere. We used high-resolution, multi-parameter data collected in a headwater stream and its local environment (climate and soil) to determine interannual variability in physical, chemical, and biological signals in a montane stream during the winter of an El Niño and a La Niña year. We observed ~77% greater snow accumulation during the El Niño year, which caused the formation of an ice dam that shifted the system from a primarily lotic to a lentic environment. Water chemistry and stream metabolism parameters varied widely between years. They featured anoxic conditions lasting over a month, with no observable gross primary production (GPP) occurring under the ice and snow cover in the El Niño year. In contrast, dissolved oxygen and GPP remained relatively high during the winter months of the La Niña year. These redox and metabolic changes driven by changes in winter precipitation have significant implications for water chemistry and biological functioning beyond the winter. Our study suggests that as snow accumulation and hydrologic conditions shift during the winter due to climate change, hot-spots and hot-moments for biogeochemical processing may be reduced, with implications for the downstream movement of nutrients and transported materials.

Published: October 1, 2022


Nichols J., A. Khandewal, P.J. Regier, B. Summers, D. Van Horn, and R. Gonzales-Pinzon. 2022. The understudied winter: evidence of how precipitation differences affect stream metabolism in a headwater. Frontiers in Water 4. PNNL-SA-177552. doi:10.3389/frwa.2022.1003159

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