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A riverscape approach reveals downstream propagation of stream thermal responses to riparian thinning at multiple scales

October 6, 2021

Hydrological connectivity in river networks influences their response to environmental changes as local effects may extend downstream via flowing water. For example, localized changes in riparian forest conditions can affect stream temperatures, and these effects may propagate downstream. However, studies evaluating stream temperature responses to riparian forest management have not considered cumulative effects across entire watersheds. Improved understanding at these scales is needed because land managers are increasingly required to consider broad-scale consequences of their actions. To address this question, we deployed a high-density network of sensors across watersheds to examine stream temperature responses to experimental thinning of riparian forests. A riverscape approach that combined high-resolution data throughout the study watersheds made it possible to examine local and downstream patterns of stream temperature at multiple spatial and temporal scales. We found that local responses of temperature to thinning varied widely depending on the intensity of thinning treatments. Downstream propagation of local responses extended from 100 m to over 1000 m and depended on the magnitude of the local response. We characterized these responses as a series of waveforms. In the watersheds with more intensive thinning, thermal responses occurred most often as an extended pulse where downstream increases in temperature attenuated gradually at variable distances. Although we observed no evidence of cumulative effects associated with thinning at the downstream extent of stream networks, effects emerged where thinning treatments were closely spaced (<400 m apart) and local warming did not dissipate with downstream distance. In a watershed with less intensive thinning, there was either no response or a localized pulse with no downstream propagation. Collectively, these patterns suggest that riparian forest thinning influenced downstream thermal conditions to varying extents depending on the intensity, scale, and spatial proximity of treatments. We found that a multiscale riverscape approach and conceptual framework based on contrasting waveforms provided a foundation for understanding the cumulative watershed effects of riparian thinning. The approach developed here can be adapted more broadly when evaluating downstream propagation of local changes in river networks and has direct implications for guiding restoration in riparian ecosystems.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2021
Title A riverscape approach reveals downstream propagation of stream thermal responses to riparian thinning at multiple scales
DOI 10.1002/ecs2.3775
Authors David A. Roon, Jason B. Dunham, Christian E. Torgersen
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecosphere
Index ID 70224956
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center