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Hydrological regime changes in a Canadian Prairie wetland basin



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The hydrology of the Canadian Prairies has been well described in the scientific literature. 20th C observations show that snowmelt over frozen soils accounted for over 80% of the annual runoff, and streamflow hydrographs peaked in April and ceased in May due to a lack of runoff or groundwater contributions. Since then, the region has undergone rapid changes in land use and climate, both which affect streamflow generating processes. This study evaluates the detailed hydrological impact of regional changes to climate on an instrumented research catchment, the Smith Creek Research Basin (SCRB); an unregulated, wetland and agriculture dominated prairie catchment in south-eastern Saskatchewan. Wetlands have been drained for decades, reducing wetland extent by 58% and maximum storage volume by 79%, and increasing drainage channels lengths by 780%. Long term meteorological records show that there have been gradual changes to the climate: though there are no trends in annual precipitation amount, increasing temperatures since 1942 have brought on a gradual increase in the rainfall fraction of precipitation and an earlier snowmelt by two weeks. In the summer months, the number of multiple day rainfall events has increased by 5 events per year, which may make rainfall-runoff generation mechanisms more efficient. Streamflow records show that annual streamflow volume and runoff ratios have increased 14-fold and 12-fold, respectively since 1975, with major shifts in 1994 and 2010. Streamflow contributions from rainfall-runoff and mixed-runoff regimes increased substantially. Snowmelt runoff declined from 86% of annual discharge volume in the 1970’s to 47% recently while rainfall runoff increased from 7% to 34%. Annual peak discharge tripled over the period from 1975 to 2014, with a major shift in 1994, while the duration of flow doubled in length to 147 days after a changepoint in 1990. Recent flooding in the SCRB has produced abnormally large streamflow volumes, and flooding in June 2012 and 2014 was caused solely by rainfall, something never before recorded at the basin. Although the observed changes in climate and wetland drainage are substantial, it is unlikely that a single change can explain the dramatic shifts in the surface hydrology of the SCRB. Further investigation using process hydrology simulations is needed to help explain the observed regime changes.



Canadian Prairies, climate change, streamflow, wetland drainage, snowmelt, rainfall runoff, non-stationarity, geographically isolated wetlands



Master of Science (M.Sc.)


Geography and Planning




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