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Springs as hydrologic refugia in a changing climate? A remote sensing approach

April 1, 2018

Spring‐fed wetlands are ecologically important habitats in arid and semi‐arid regions. Springs have been suggested as possible hydrologic refugia from droughts and climate change; however, springs that depend on recent precipitation or snowmelt for recharge may be vulnerable to warming and drought intensification. Springs that are expected to maintain their ecohydrologic function in a warmer, drier climate may be priorities for conservation and restoration. Identifying such springs is difficult because many springs lack hydrologic records of adequate temporal extent and resolution to assess their resilience to water cycle changes. This study demonstrates proof‐of‐concept for the assessment of certain spring types (i.e., helocrene, hypocrene, and hillslope springs) in terms of hydrologic and ecological resilience to climatic water stress using freely available remote‐sensing and climate data. We used the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) from 1985 through 2011 to delineate surface‐moisture zones (SMZs) associated with 39 clusters of 172 springs in a montane sage‐steppe landscape in southeastern Oregon, USA. We developed and synthesized seven NDVI‐based indicators of SMZ resilience to interannual changes in water availability: (1) mean and (2) standard deviation of July NDVI; (3) mean difference in July NDVI and (4) difference in coefficient of variation for July NDVI between each SMZ and its surrounding watershed; (5) response of SMZ July NDVI to 90‐day antecedent precipitation; (6) response of SMZ July NDVI to the previous winter's snowpack; and (7) range of NDVI values from an exceptionally wet year followed by three dry years. Because all resilience indicators were highly inter‐correlated, we derived an overall metric of SMZ resilience using principal components analysis that accounted for 66% of total variance. This overall resilience score was positively correlated with SMZ elevation, slope, mean annual precipitation, and with the number of associated springs. Resilience was greater for SMZs on topographically shaded, north‐facing slopes. Several high‐resilience SMZs were located immediately below persistent snowbanks, suggesting a possible source of steady recharge throughout the growing season. The approach presented here—if combined with field assessments of spring hydrogeology, discharge, and groundwater age—could help identify spring‐fed wetlands that are most likely to serve as hydrologic refugia from climate change.

Publication Year 2018
Title Springs as hydrologic refugia in a changing climate? A remote sensing approach
DOI 10.1002/ecs2.2155
Authors Jennifer M. Cartwright, Henry M. Johnson
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecosphere
Index ID 70196473
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Lower Mississippi-Gulf Water Science Center