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The Cryosphere An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
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Volume 10, issue 1
The Cryosphere, 10, 433-444, 2016
https://doi.org/10.5194/tc-10-433-2016
© Author(s) 2016. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.
The Cryosphere, 10, 433-444, 2016
https://doi.org/10.5194/tc-10-433-2016
© Author(s) 2016. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Research article 29 Feb 2016

Research article | 29 Feb 2016

Bulk meltwater flow and liquid water content of snowpacks mapped using the electrical self-potential (SP) method

Sarah S. Thompson1,a, Bernd Kulessa2, Richard L. H. Essery3, and Martin P. Lüthi4,a Sarah S. Thompson et al.
  • 1Department of Arctic Geology, University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), Svalbard, Norway
  • 2Department of Geography, College of Science, Swansea University, Swansea, UK
  • 3Institute of Global Change, The School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK
  • 4Department of Geography, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
  • aformerly at: Versuchsanstalt für Wasserbau, Hydrologie und Glaziology (VAW), ETH Zürich, Zurich, Switzerland

Abstract. Our ability to measure, quantify and assimilate hydrological properties and processes of snow in operational models is disproportionally poor compared to the significance of seasonal snowmelt as a global water resource and major risk factor in flood and avalanche forecasting. We show here that strong electrical self-potential fields are generated in melting in situ snowpacks at Rhone Glacier and Jungfraujoch Glacier, Switzerland. In agreement with theory, the diurnal evolution of self-potential magnitudes ( ∼ 60–250mV) relates to those of bulk meltwater fluxes (0–1.2 × 10−6m3s−1) principally through the permeability and the content, electrical conductivity and pH of liquid water. Previous work revealed that when fresh snow melts, ions are eluted in sequence and electrical conductivity, pH and self-potential data change diagnostically. Our snowpacks had experienced earlier stages of melt, and complementary snow pit measurements revealed that electrical conductivity ( ∼ 1–5 × 10−6Sm−1) and pH ( ∼ 6.5–6.7) as well as permeabilities (respectively  ∼ 9.7 × 10−5 and  ∼ 4.3 × 10−5m2 at Rhone Glacier and Jungfraujoch Glacier) were invariant. This implies, first, that preferential elution of ions was complete and, second, that our self-potential measurements reflect daily changes in liquid water contents. These were calculated to increase within the pendular regime from  ∼ 1 to 5 and  ∼ 3 to 5.5% respectively at Rhone Glacier and Jungfraujoch Glacier, as confirmed by ground truth measurements. We conclude that the electrical self-potential method is a promising snow and firn hydrology sensor owing to its suitability for (1) sensing lateral and vertical liquid water flows directly and minimally invasively, (2) complementing established observational programs through multidimensional spatial mapping of meltwater fluxes or liquid water content and (3)  monitoring autonomously at a low cost. Future work should focus on the development of self-potential sensor arrays compatible with existing weather and snow monitoring technology and observational programs, and the integration of self-potential data into analytical frameworks.

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We show that strong electrical self-potential fields are generated in melting in in situ snowpacks at Rhone Glacier and Jungfraujoch Glacier, Switzerland. We conclude that the electrical self-potential method is a promising snow and firn hydrology sensor, owing to its suitability for sensing lateral and vertical liquid water flows directly and minimally invasively, complementing established observational programs and monitoring autonomously at a low cost.
We show that strong electrical self-potential fields are generated in melting in in situ...
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