Understanding climate change impacts on hydrology is especially relevant to areas already dealing with water scarcity, common in Mediterranean regions such as California (CA). For instance, warming is expected to drive up evapotranspiration (ET) fluxes from vegetation, which could impact runoff (Q) and water supply by up to 30% from CA’s Sierra Nevadas by 2100. In this study, we hypothesize that the 1-2 oC increase during the 20th and early 21st centuries should have resulted in a trend of decreasing Q for a given amount of precipitation (P) due to increasing ET through time. We also hypothesize that any observed differences in watershed ET response to warming could be explained by soil controls, since Mediterranean biomes require soil moisture storage to endure dry summers. We analyzed unimpaired runoff from 10 major CA watersheds relative to P over a 110 year record and found trends of increasing P minus Q in the northern watersheds, supporting the hypothesis of mountain Q vulnerability to warming but not in the central and southern watersheds. This may be partly due to the faster rates of summertime warming we observed in the northern watersheds when potential ET is highest. Analysis of several soil investigations in the study area on bioclimosequences suggests that these inter-watershed differences in P minus Q may also be due to soils. Soils formed from volcanic rocks, which are more prevalent in the northern watersheds, tend to have higher clay contents and water holding capacity. Moreover, the higher elevation central and southern watersheds were more widely glaciated throughout the Pleistocene, resulting in a wider extent of scoured landscapes and soils shallow to hard bedrock. Thus, the northern watershed ET flux could have previously been temperature constrained with untapped soil moisture storage. Going forward, an analysis is planned to quantify the extent of various soil-vegetation-climate zones. For each zone, we will build simple water balance models to estimate watershed ET response sensitivity. This should help resolve whether or not soil development is regulating hydrologic response to climate change. However, from an ecological resilience point of view, the southern watersheds may be the most sensitive. Lack of hydrologic response suggests that an upward biome shift may be ongoing or imminent there.
Devine, S.; O’geen, A.T.; Dahlke, H.E. (2016): Is Soil Development Controlling Ecohydrologic Response to Climate Change in the Southern Cascade and Sierra Nevada Watersheds, CA, USA?. Fall Meeting, American Geophysical Union, December 2016. Abstract GC13E-1235..