• snow melt;
  • structure;
  • preferential flow;
  • tracers


Water flow through a melting snow pack modifies its structure and stability and affects the release of water and nutrients into soils and surface waters. Field and laboratory observations indicate a large spatial variability on various scales of the liquid water content and flow, a dominant system feature currently not included in numerical models. We investigated experimentally water and dye tracer movement through microstructurally different snow pack horizons and the persistence of preferential flow paths. Naturally rounded snow of varying grain size was artificially packed to obtain well known conditions by sieving it into rectangular bins. Surface melt was induced with infrared lamps. The flow paths were visualized with tracers and liquid water content was monitored with time domain reflectometry probes. Vertical cuts through the snow pack were imaged. The dye tracer patterns allowed the two flow regimes ‘matrix flow’ and ‘preferential flow’ to be distinguished. Matrix flow is apparently dominated by film and capillary flow in the unsaturated snow matrix. The capillary barrier effect at a boundary between a fine over a coarse textured layer on matrix flow in snow was confirmed. In contrast, preferential flow appears as well-defined flow fingers that advance from 0·1 to 1 cm s−1. During a melt phase, the advancing flow fingers enlarge and are only partially time invariant. It remains to be shown whether the continuum concept, including the Darcy–Buckingham law is apt to describe the extremely non-linear nature of water flow and the travel time of solutes in snow under conditions of melt water percolation. Probably, snow packs that include faceted crystals and large variations in bulk density, feature more pronounced capillary barriers and preferential flow triggering, but also stronger impeding of fingers by lateral dispersion. Further, triggering and persistence of preferential flow is complicated by the usually transient infiltration rate. Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.