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Climate change causes river network contraction and disconnection in the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, Oregon, USA

April 23, 2020

Headwater streams account for more than 89% of global river networks and provide numerous ecosystem services that benefit downstream ecosystems and human water uses. It has been established that changes in climate have shifted the timing and magnitude of observed precipitation, which, at specific gages, have been directly linked to long-term reductions in large river discharge. However, climate impacts on ungaged headwater streams, where ecosystem function is tightly coupled to flow permanence along the river corridor, remain unknown due to the lack of data sets and ability to model and predict flow permanence. We analyzed a network of 10 gages with 38–69 years of records across a 5th-order river basin in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, finding increasing frequency of lower low-flow conditions across the basin. Next, we simulated river network expansion and contraction for a 65-year period of record, revealing 24% and 9% declines in flowing and contiguous network length, respectively, during the driest months of the year. This study is the first to mechanistically simulate network expansion and contraction at the scale of a large river basin, informing if and how climate change is altering connectivity along river networks. While the heuristic model presented here yields basin-specific conclusions, this approach is generalizable and transferable to the study of other large river basins. Finally, we interpret our model results in the context of regulations based on flow permanence, demonstrating the complications of static regulatory definitions in the face of non-stationary climate.