EGU23-315, updated on 22 Feb 2023
EGU General Assembly 2023
© Author(s) 2023. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

The importance of snowmelt in the water balance of the Toconao sub-basin, Salar de Atacama

Sonia Valdivielso1, Enric Vázquez-Suñé1, Juan Ignacio López Moreno2, Emilio Custodio3,4,5, Rotman Criollo Manjarrez6, John W. Pomeroy7, and Ashkan Hassanzadeh8
Sonia Valdivielso et al.
  • 1Institute of Environmental Assessment and Water Research (IDAEA/CSIC), Geoscience, Barcelona, Spain (
  • 2Pyrenean Institute of Ecology (IPE-CSIC), Spain
  • 3Technical University of Catalonia (UPC), Barcelona, Spain
  • 4Royal Academy of Mathematical, Physical and Natural Sciences (RAC) of Spain, Spain
  • 5Institute of Environmental Studies and Natural Resources (IUNAT), University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Islas Canarias, Spain
  • 6Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies (IMEDEA, CSIC-UIB). Esporles - Illes Balears, Spain
  • 7Centre for Hydrology, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
  • 8Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), Barcelona, Spain

The Salar de Atacama basin is one of the best-studied saline endorheic basins in the world due to the delicate balance between extraction of lithium-rich brine from its core, tourism, and the unique ecosystems of its surrounding lagoons. However, no study to date has quantified the contribution of snowmelt compared to rainfall in supporting groundwater recharge in the basin. In this work, satellite information (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, MODIS) is used to characterize the spatial and temporal dynamics of snow coverage. However, snow equivalent water is not available from remote sensing, so the Cold Regions Hydrological Model (CRHM) was used to simulate snow water equivalent, runoff, infiltration and other hydrological processes governing the water balance and groundwater recharge. CRHM makes it possible to link physical processes to hydrological processes using hydrological response units (HRU) as control volumes for water balances and as a means of discretizing the basin. HRU were defined in the Toconao sub-basin, in the eastern part of the Salar de Atacama watershed and CRHM was parameterized from regional hydrological knowledge and run for several years, forced by reanalysis data. Special attention was paid to better understand the energy balance of snow, including sublimation and wind transport ablation losses, soil infiltration processes, and the role of snowmelt in surface runoff generation and direct and indirect groundwater recharge.

Satellite observations of snow cover recorded from 2000 to 2020 showed frequent snowfalls both in summer and winter. The greatest extent of snow cover occurred during winter, accounting for 60% of the annual snow-cover extent. Snow cover is generally located above 4500 m asl in summer, while in winter the snow cover is more extensive, covering a large part of the basin. The CRHM simulations show that the greatest amount of precipitation of the year falls as rain in the summer months with the drier winter dominated by snowfall. The intense summer rains produce the greatest annual fluxes of runoff and infiltration. In winter, snowmelt infiltration is approximately twice that from rainfall. Snow losses by wind transport and sublimation had little impact on the overall water balance despite the dry environment.

How to cite: Valdivielso, S., Vázquez-Suñé, E., López Moreno, J. I., Custodio, E., Criollo Manjarrez, R., Pomeroy, J. W., and Hassanzadeh, A.: The importance of snowmelt in the water balance of the Toconao sub-basin, Salar de Atacama, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-315,, 2023.