Flow intermittency, physico-chemistry and function of headwater streams in an Alpine glacial catchment

; ; ; ; (). Flow intermittency, physico-chemistry and function of headwater streams in an Alpine glacial catchment. Aquatic Sciences, 78 327-341. Peer reviewed.

Relatively little is known regarding the extent of intermittent streams or the general ecology of headwaters in alpine catchments with glacial influence. This study quantified the contribution of intermittent streams to the total length of the stream network along with an ecological assessment during spring-summer of headwater streams (higher than 1,900 m above sea level) in the Val Roseg, a high Alpine glacial catchment. Stream network mapping revealed that ca. 90 % (76.8 km) of the drainage network consisted of intermittent streams. Glacier-fed headwaters experienced diel surface flows in late spring and summer, most going dry during the night due to reduced glacial inputs. In contrast, groundwater-fed streams often went dry in summer with the contraction of groundwater and other subsurface inputs. A principal components analysis of physico-chemical characteristics revealed headwaters to be primarily glacial-fed (kryal), groundwater-fed (krenal), or having a mixed water source. Although quite variable, periphyton biomass reached high levels (ca. 40 mg m-2 chla, 10 g m-2 AFDM) by late spring in most headwaters. Organic matter in transport (seston) ranged from 0.03 to 0.09 mg L-1 mostly consisting of fine particulate organic matter (FPOM: 33–76 %). Hyporheic sediment respiration rates varied considerably, ranging from 0.005 to 0.126 mg O2 h-1 kg-1 sediment and primarily related to the amount of loosely attached organic matter. These results indicate that intermittent streams are predominant in alpine landscapes, comprising mostly 1st to 2nd order systems, and that ecosystem properties vary substantially among headwater streams likely in relation to annual/daily changes in flow and water source. Such headwaters may contribute strongly to the production, processing and transport of organic matter to downstream waters, especially in light of the expected increase in intermittent streams in alpine catchments experiencing rapid glacial recession.