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McNamara, J.P., 1997

A nested watershed study in the Kuparuk River basin, arctic Alaska; streamflow, scaling, and drainage basin structure

Bibliographic Reference

McNamara, J.P., 1997, A nested watershed study in the Kuparuk River basin, arctic Alaska; streamflow, scaling, and drainage basin structure: University of Alaska Fairbanks, Ph.D. dissertation, 260 p., illust., maps.

Abstract

The central hypothesis of this dissertation is that permafrost influences the form, function, and scaling of hydrologic and geomorphologic characteristics in the Kuparuk River basin in Northern Alaska. This problem was addressed using three approaches: field hydrologic studies, statistical scaling studies, and geomorphology studies using digital elevation models. Permafrost and snow exert significant controls on hydrologic processes in the Kuparuk River basin. Storm hydrographs show fast responses, long time lags, extended recessions, and high runoff/precipitation ratios. These features arise from the diminished storage capacity caused by permafrost. Summer storm flow compositions in the are dominated by old water, as is commonly observed in basins without permafrost. However, the thawing active layer imposes seasonal trends on storm flow composition and other streamflow characteristics. These seasonal trends are often masked by precipitation patterns. Significant differences exist in the spatial variability and scaling of streamflow between arctic and temperate basins. Streamflow in arctic basins is subject to simple scaling, whereas streamflow in temperate regions is subject to multiscaling. Since the variability of streamflow downstream results from the timing of storm hydrographs upstream, regional scaling differences may result from the differences in runoff generation mechanisms in basins with and without permafrost. Fractal analysis of channel networks, and the scaling of mass distribution suggest that channel networks in the Kuparuk River basin are underdeveloped. Hillslope water tracks convey water off slopes, but the organization of water tracks lacks universal characteristics of mass and energy distribution common to other rivers, and hence cannot be considered fluvial channels. However, the heads of water tracks are located where some theoretical models of channel initiation predict that channels should occur. A likely scenario is that a rudimentary channel network was formed soon after deglaciation, but was never allowed to develop into a mature network due to the limits that permafrost imposes on erosion. An encompassing conclusion is that the Kuparuk River basin is adjusted to arctic conditions in both form and function. Consequently, thermal changes to the existing permafrost condition may impose significant changes in the erosional development of channel networks and in the subsequent hydrologic response.

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