Unprecedented levels of bark beetle infestation over the last decade have radically altered forest structure across millions of hectares of Western U.S. montane environments. The widespread extent of this disturbance presents a major challenge for governments and resource managers who lack a predictive understanding of how water and biogeochemical cycles will respond to this disturbance over various temporal and spatial scales. There is a widespread perception, largely based on hydrological responses to fire or logging, that a reduction in both transpiration and interception following tree death will increase soil water availability and catchment water yield. However, few studies have directly addressed the effects of insect-induced forest decline on water and biogeochemical cycling. We address this knowledge gap using observations and modeling at scales from 100 to 109 m2 across study sites in CO and WY that vary in the intensity and timing of beetle infestation and tree death. Our focus on multiple sites with different levels of impact allows us to address two broad, organizing questions: How do changes in vegetation structure associated with MPB alter the partitioning of energy and water? And How do these changes in energy and water availability affect local to regional scale water and biogeochemical cycles? This presentation will focus primarily on energy balance and water partitioning, providing context for ongoing biogeochemical work. During the growing season, stand-scale transpiration declines rapidly and soil moisture increases following infestation, consistent with streamflow data from regional catchments that shows an increase in baseflow following widespread attack. During the winter and spring, stand scale snow surveys and continuous snow depth sensors suggested that the variability in snow cover decreased as the severity of beetle impact increases, but there were no significant stand-scale differences in snow depth among levels of impact. This is due both to an increase in snow under the canopies of dead trees and a decrease in snow cover in canopy gaps. For example, mean snow depth under the canopy was 86cm (CV 0.02) in unimpacted sites and 95cm (CV 0.05) in heavily impacted sites. In canopy gaps however, mean snow depth was 117cm (CV 0.11) in unimpacted sites but only 93cm (CV 0.07) in heavily impacted sites. At the watershed scale, bark beetle infestation was more likely to decrease the amount of both snowmelt and annual runoff, suggesting that the opening of the canopy increases sublimation and evaporation of the snow cover. These data suggest that the disturbance due to bark beetle infestation is both quantitatively and qualitatively different than either fire or logging. Using these observations, we develop a conceptual model for evaluating how biotic and abiotic processes couple water and biogeochemical cycles in forest ecosystems.
Brooks, P.D., Harpold, A.A., Somor, A.J., Troch, P.A., Gochis, D.J., Ewers, B.E., Pendall, E., Biederman, J.A., Reed, D., Barnard, H.R., Whitehouse, F., Aston, T., Borkhuu, B. (2010): Quantifying the effects of mountain pine beetle infestation on water and biogeochemical cycles at multiple spatial and temporal scales . AGU Fall Meeting Abstract U33B-04 (was B31E-0348)..