The compensating effect of glaciers: Characterizing the relation between interannual streamflow variability and glacier cover

Marit van Tiel*, Irene Kohn, Anne F. Van Loon, Kerstin Stahl

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Meltwater from glaciers is not only a stable source of water but also affects downstream streamflow dynamics. One of these dynamics is the interannual variability of streamflow. Glaciers can moderate streamflow variability because the runoff in the glacierized part, driven by temperature, correlates negatively with the runoff in the non-glacierized part of a catchment, driven by precipitation, thereby counterbalancing each other. This is also called the glacier compensation effect (GCE), and the effect is assumed to depend on relative glacier cover. Previous studies found a convex relationship between streamflow variability and glacier cover of different glacierized catchments, with lowest streamflow variability at a certain optimum glacier cover. In this study, we aim to revisit these previously found curves to find out if a universal relationship between interannual streamflow variability and glacier cover exists, which could potentially be used in a space-for-time substitution analysis. Moreover, we test the hypothesis that the dominant climate drivers (here precipitation and temperature) switch around the suggested optimum of the curve. First, a set of virtual nested catchments, with the same absolute glacier area but varying non-glacierized area, were modelled to isolate the effect of glacier cover on streamflow variability. The modelled relationship was then compared with a multicatchment data set of gauged glacierized catchments in the European Alps. In the third step, changes of the GCE curve over time were analysed. Model results showed a convex relationship and the optimum in the simulated curve aligned with a switch in the dominant climate driver. However, the multicatchment data and the time change analyses did not suggest the existence of a universal convex relationship. Overall, we conclude that GCE is complex due to entangled controls and changes over time in glacierized catchments. Therefore, care should be taken to use a GCE curve for estimating and/or predicting interannual streamflow variability in glacierized catchments.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)553-568
Number of pages16
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jan 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • glacier compensation effect
  • glacierized catchments
  • interannual variability
  • modelling experiment
  • space-for-time substitution
  • streamflow


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