Abstract

Water tracks are zones of high soil moisture that route water downslope over the ice table in polar environments. We present physical, hydrological, and geochemical evidence collected in Taylor Valley, McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica, which suggests that previously unexplored water tracks are a significant component of this cold desert land system and constitute the major flow path in a cryptic hydrological system. Geological, geochemical, and hydrological analyses show that the water tracks are generated by a combination of infiltration from melting snowpacks, melting of pore ice at the ice table beneath the water tracks, and melting of buried segregation ice formed during winter freezing. The water tracks are enriched in solutes derived from chemical weathering of sediments as well as from dissolution of soil salts. The water tracks empty into ice-covered lakes, such as Lake Hoare, resulting in the interfingering of shallow groundwater solutions and glacier-derived stream water, adding complexity to the geochemical profile. Approximately four orders of magnitude less water is delivered to Lake Hoare by any given water track than is delivered by surface runoff from stream flow; however, the solute delivery to Lake Hoare by water tracks equals or may exceed the mass of solutes delivered from stream flow, making water tracks significant geochemical pathways. Additionally, solute transport is two orders of magnitude faster in water tracks than in adjacent dry or damp soil, making water tracks “salt superhighways” in the Antarctic cold desert. Accordingly, water tracks represent a new geological pathway that distributes water, energy, and nutrients in Antarctic Dry Valley, cold desert, soil ecosystems, providing hydrological and geochemical connectivity at the hillslope scale.

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