EGU2020-11547, updated on 26 Apr 2023
EGU General Assembly 2020
© Author(s) 2023. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Monitoring isotopic signature in headwaters to trace environmental changes: an example in the Italian Alps

Chiara Marchina1, Valeria Lencioni2, Francesca Paoli2, Marzia Rizzo1, and Gianluca Bianchini1
Chiara Marchina et al.
  • 1University of Ferrara, Department of Physics and Earth Sciences, Via G. Saragat 1, 44122 Ferrara, Italy
  • 2MUSE - Science Museum of Trento, Department of Invertebrate Zoology and Hydrobiology, Corso del Lavoro e della Scienza 3, I-38122 Trento, Italy

Glaciers are shrinking due to global warming, resulting in a diminishing contribution of ice- and snowmelt to headwaters with consequences on freshwater ecosystems. The stable isotopic compositions in natural waters (δ18O and δ2H) respond to environmental variation very sensitively and can indicate the change of geographic environment or mark the recharge of runoff (Boral 2019, Zuecco 2019). Thus, stable isotopes have been used as natural tracers to constrain the contributions of different water sources to streamflow, including snowmelt, icemelt and groundwater baseflow (Boral 2019). Within this context, we tested if water stable isotopes are spatio-temporal tracers of: i) water in periglacial habitats, being the isotopic signature of surface water inherited from the snow/icemelt, groundwater, and rainfall; ii) regional (year-specific) meteorological conditions, being the isotopic signature of precipitations affected by air temperature, humidity and aqueous vapour origin, ascribing stable isotopes in the list of the “essential climate variables″ (ECV). In this light, we investigated the ionic and isotopic composition (δ18O and δ2H) of six high altitude streams and one pond in the Italian Alps (Noce and Sarca basins) during the ablation season in 2018. Differences between habitat types (pond, kryal, rhithral, krenal) were detected. More negative values of δ18O and δ2H were recorded in the kryal and glacio-rhithral sites dominated by ice and snowmelt, in early summer. Less negative values were recorded in these sites in late summer and in krenal sites, dominated by groundwater and rainfall inputs. The isotopic results also showed that the complex alpine orography influences the air masses and moist, ultimately resulting in isotopic differences in precipitations of neighbouring, but distinct catchments (Sarca and Noce basins). As average, less negative values were recorded in the Sarca basin, characterized by a higher contribution of precipitation of Mediterranean origin. Finally, isotopic composition of the entire water population appeared to be strongly influenced by the regional climatic anomaly of the year 2018, which was anomalously warm in respect to the historical series 1961- 1990. This study will provide additional clues for the climate-change debate, proposing water isotopes as “essential climate variables″ indicators for assessing change in a warmer future.


Keywords: stable isotopes, glaciers, essential climatic variables



Boral S., J. Hydrol.,

Zuecco G., Hydrol. Process,

How to cite: Marchina, C., Lencioni, V., Paoli, F., Rizzo, M., and Bianchini, G.: Monitoring isotopic signature in headwaters to trace environmental changes: an example in the Italian Alps , EGU General Assembly 2020, Online, 4–8 May 2020, EGU2020-11547,, 2020.


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