Forested montane catchments are critical to the amount and quality of downstream water resources. In western North America more than 60 million people rely on mountain precipitation, and water managers face uncertain response to an unprecedented forest die-off from mountain pine beetle (MPB) infestation. Reduced snow interception and transpiration are expected to increase streamflow, while increased organic matter decay is expected to increase biogeochemical stream fluxes. Tree- to plot-scale observations have documented some of the expected changes, but there has been little significant change to streamflow or water quality at the larger scales relevant to water resources. A critical gap exists in our understanding of why tree-scale process changes have not led to the expected, large-scale increases in streamflow and biogeochemical fluxes. We address this knowledge gap with observations of water and biogeochemical fluxes at nested spatial scales including tree, hillslope, and catchments from 3 to 700 ha with more than 75% mortality. Catchment discharge showed reduced water yield consistent with co-located eddy covariance observations showing increased vapor losses following MPB. Stable water isotopes showed progressive kinetic fractionation (i.e. unsaturated transition layer above the evaporating surface) in snowpack, soil water and streams indicating greater abiotic evaporation from multiple water sources offsetting decreased interception and transpiration. In the 3rd to 5th years following MPB forest mortality, soil water DOC and DON were similar beneath killed and healthy trees, but concentrations were elevated 210 times in groundwater of MPB-impacted sites as compared to unimpacted. Stream water DOC and DON were about 3 times as large during snowmelt runoff in ephemeral zero-order channels of MPB-impacted sites compared to unimpacted. Processing in the headwater streams of MPB-impacted forests rapidly attenuated dissolved organic matter. From the MPB-impacted zero-order channel, DOC and DON were reduced by ~50 % within 5 km downstream in a 700-ha catchment with similar MPB forest mortality. Soil water NO3 up to 500 µeq l-1 during the snowmelt flush was attenuated by an order of magnitude in the riparian groundwater and was usually below detection limit in the adjacent zero-order channel. These observations demonstrate that water resources impacts of insect-induced forest mortality may be muted because 1) compensatory vapor loss can offset expected water yield increases and 2) processing of carbon and nitrogen along both hillslope flowpaths and within headwater streams can rapidly attenuate biogeochemical fluxes.
Biederman J.A., Brooks P.D., Harpold A.A., Gochis J.D., Ewers B.E., Reed D.E., Gutmann E.D. (2013): Compensatory vapor loss and biogeochemical attenuation along flowpaths mute the water resources impacts of insect-induced forest mortality. Abstract H14C-08 presented at 2013 Fall Meeting, AGU, San Francisco, CA, 9-13 Dec..