Spatiotemporal Drivers of Hydrochemical Variability in a Tropical Glacierized Watershed in the Andes

Leila Saberi, G. H. Crystal Ng, Leah Nelson, Wei Zhi, Li Li, Jeff La Frenierre, Morgan Johnstone

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1 Scopus citations


There is a critical knowledge gap about how glacier retreat in remote and rapidly warming tropical montane watersheds will impact solute export, which has implications for downstream geochemical cycling and ecological function. Because tropical glacierized watersheds are often uniquely characterized by year-round ablation, upslope vegetation migration, and significant groundwater flow, baseline understanding is needed of how spatiotemporal variables within these watersheds control outlet hydrochemistry. We implemented a recently developed reactive transport watershed model, BioRT-Flux-PIHM, for a sub-humid glacierized watershed in the Ecuadorian Andes with young volcanic soils and fractured bedrock. We found a unique simulated concentration and discharge (C-Q) pattern that was mostly chemostatic but superimposed by dilution episodes. The chemostatic background was attributed to large simulated contributions of groundwater (subsurface lateral flow) to streamflow, of which a notable fraction (37%) comprised infiltrated ice-melt. Relatively constant concentrations were further maintained in the model because times and locations of lower mineral surface wetting and dissolution were offset by concentrating effects of greater evapotranspiration. Ice-melt did not all infiltrate in simulations, especially during large precipitation events, when high surface runoff contributions to discharge triggered dilution episodes. In a model scenario without ice-melt, major ion concentrations, including Na+, Ca2+, and Mg2+, became more strongly chemostatic and higher, but weathering rates decreased, attenuating export by 23%. We expect this reduction to be exacerbated by higher evapotranspiration and drier conditions with expanded vegetation. This work brings to light the importance of subsurface meltwater flow, ecohydrological variability, and interactions between melt and precipitation for controlling hydrochemical processes in tropical watersheds with rapidly retreating glaciers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2020WR028722
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding from NSF (EAR‐1759071) supported this work. Saberi also received financial support from University of Minnesota. The authors would like to acknowledge Daniel Stanton and Andy Wickert (University of Minnesota) for helpful insights; Chloe Shaw and Emily Carlson (Gustavus Adolphus College) for fieldwork help; Carla Manciati, Xavier Zapata, and Veronica Minaya (Escuela Politecnica Nacional, Quito) for useful discussions and assistance in field site access; and Scott Alexander (University of Minnesota) for lab support.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021. American Geophysical Union. All Rights Reserved.


  • critical zone
  • hydrochemistry
  • mountainous watersheds
  • tropical glaciers


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