Spain, one of the most mountainous countries in Europe, suffers from frequent river flooding due to specific climatic and topographic features. Many headwaters of the largest rivers in Spain are located in mountainous areas of mid-to-high elevation. These include the Pyrenees, the Central System, and the Cantabrian mountains, that have a sustained snowpack during the winter months. Most previous research on flood generation in Spain has focused on intense rainfall events, and the role of snowmelt has been ignored or considered marginal. In this paper we present a regional-scale study to quantify the relative importance of rainfall versus snowmelt in the largest floods recorded in mountain rivers in Spain during the last decades (1980–2014). We further analyzed whether catchments characteristics and weather types may favor the occurrence of rainfall or snowmelt induced floods. Results show that in 53% of the 250 analyzed floods the contribution of rainfall was larger than 90%, and in the rest of events snowmelt contribution was larger than 10%. Floods where snowmelt was the main contributor represented only 5% of the total events. The average contribution of snowmelt represents 18% of total runoff in floods that were analyzed. The role of snowmelt in floods, rather than triggering the event, was usually amplifying the duration of the event, especially after the peak flow was reached. In general, the importance of snowmelt in floods is greater in catchments with characteristics that favor snow accumulation. However, this does not apply to floods where contribution of snowmelt was larger than 90%, which tend to occur at catchments at mid-elevations that accumulate unusual amounts of snow that melt rapidly. Floods were more frequent under both cyclonic and anticyclonic synoptic situations over the Iberian Peninsula, as well as under advection of western and eastern flows. Our results contribute to the ongoing improvement of knowledge about the role of snow in the hydrology of Spanish rivers and on the importance of mountain processes on the hydrology of downstream areas.
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