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A review of groundwater in high mountain environments

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Abstract Mountain water resources are of particular importance for downstream populations but are threatened by decreasing water storage in snowpack and glaciers. Groundwater contribution to mountain streamflow, once assumed to be relatively small, is now understood to represent an important water source to streams. This review presents an overview of research on groundwater in high mountain environments (As classified by Meybeck et al. (2001) as very high, high, and mid‐altitude mountains). Coarse geomorphic units, like talus, alluvium, and moraines, are important stores and conduits for high mountain groundwater. Bedrock aquifers contribute to catchment streamflow through shallow, weathered bedrock but also to higher order streams and central valley aquifers through deep fracture flow and mountain‐block recharge. Tracer and water balance studies have shown that groundwater contributes substantially to streamflow in many high mountain catchments, particularly during low‐flow periods. The percentage of streamflow attributable to groundwater varies greatly through time and between watersheds depending on the geology, topography, climate, and spatial scale. Recharge to high mountain aquifers is spatially variable and comes from a combination of infiltration from rain, snowmelt, and glacier melt, as well as concentrated recharge beneath losing streams, or through fractures and swallow holes. Recent advances suggest that high mountain groundwater may provide some resilience—at least temporarily—to climate‐driven glacier and snowpack recession. A paucity of field data and the heterogeneity of alpine landscapes remain important challenges, but new data sources, tracers, and modeling methods continue to expand our understanding of high mountain groundwater flow. This article is categorized under: Science of Water > Hydrological Processes Science of Water > Water and Environmental Change Science of Water > Methods
Histogram indicating the year of publication and geographic setting of high mountain groundwater studies included in this overview. Review papers for specific geographic regions and studies that use data from two ranges are colored as half and half. Studies labeled as modeling are pure theoretical modeling that is not associated with a field site. Only peer‐reviewed publications (no dissertations or theses) in English are included in the plot. While not exhaustive, we aim to present a comprehensive overview of mountain groundwater research
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Conceptual diagrams illustrating mountain‐front recharge (MFR) and mountain‐block recharge (MBR). (a) An example physical configuration of the transition between mountain and basin. (b) A system where mountain front recharge dominates. (c) A system where mountain‐block recharge dominates. (d) A system which has both MFR and MBR. From Bresciani et al. (2018)
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Conceptual model of high mountain hydrogeological processes including groundwater flow through subsurface features, such as talus slopes, moraines, valley bottom sediments, and bedrock, and the influence of permafrost and geological structures. Modified from Somers et al. (2019)
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Two conceptual models of streamflow generation in high mountain terrain where streamflow is generated from (a) a combination of hillslope responses and (b) a combination of hillslope and fully 3‐dimensional groundwater flow. From Frisbee et al. (2011)
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Schematic of groundwater flow through coarse high mountain geomorphic units including a debris fan, talus slope, and moraine complex. From Gordon et al. (2015)
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Engineering Water > Methods
Science of Water > Water and Environmental Change
Science of Water > Hydrological Processes

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