Inferring watershed hydraulics and cold-water habitat persistence using multi-year air and stream temperature signals

Martin A. Briggs, Zachary C. Johnson, Craig D. Snyder, Nathaniel P. Hitt, Barret L. Kurylyk, Laura Lautz, Dylan J. Irvine, Stephen T. Hurley, John W. Lane

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Streams strongly influenced by groundwater discharge may serve as “climate refugia” for sensitive species in regions of increasingly marginal thermal conditions. The main goal of this study is to develop paired air and stream water annual temperature signal analysis techniques to elucidate the relative groundwater contribution to stream water and the effective groundwater flowpath depth. Groundwater discharge to streams attenuates surface water temperature signals, and this attenuation can be diagnostic of groundwater gaining systems. Additionally, discharge from shallow groundwater flowpaths can theoretically transfer lagged annual temperature signals from aquifer to stream water. Here we explore this concept using multi-year temperature records from 120 stream sites located across 18 mountain watersheds of Shenandoah National Park, VA, USA and a coastal watershed in Massachusetts, USA. Both areas constitute important cold-water habitat for native brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis). Observed annual temperature signals indicate a dominance of shallow groundwater discharge to streams in the National Park, in contrast to the coastal watershed that has strong, apparently deeper, groundwater influence. The average phase lag from air to stream signals in Shenandoah National Park is 11 d; however, extended lags of approximately 1 month were observed in a subset of streams. In contrast, the coastal stream has pronounced attenuation of annual temperature signals without notable phase lag. To better understand these observed differences in signal characteristics, analytical and numerical models are used to quantify mixing of the annual temperature signals of surface and groundwater. Simulations using a total heat budget numerical model indicate groundwater-induced annual temperature signal phase lags are likely to show greater downstream propagation than the related signal amplitude attenuation. The measurement of multi-seasonal paired air and water temperatures offers great promise toward understanding catchment processes and informing current cold-water habitat management at ecologically-relevant scales.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1117-1127
Number of pages11
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished - 15 Sept 2018
Externally publishedYes


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