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Ecohydrology of adjacent sagebrush and lodgepole pine ecosystems: the consequences of climate change and disturbance

June 2, 2014

Sagebrush steppe and lodgepole pine forests are two of the most widespread vegetation types in the western United States and they play crucial roles in the hydrologic cycle of these water-limited regions. We used a process-based ecosystem water model to characterize the potential impact of climate change and disturbance (wildfire and beetle mortality) on water cycling in adjacent sagebrush and lodgepole pine ecosystems. Despite similar climatic and topographic conditions between these ecosystems at the sites examined, lodgepole pine, and sagebrush exhibited consistent differences in water balance, notably more evaporation and drier summer soils in the sagebrush and greater transpiration and less water yield in lodgepole pine. Canopy disturbances (either fire or beetle) have dramatic impacts on water balance and availability: reducing transpiration while increasing evaporation and water yield. Results suggest that climate change may reduce snowpack, increase evaporation and transpiration, and lengthen the duration of dry soil conditions in the summer, but may have uncertain effects on drainage. Changes in the distribution of sagebrush and lodgepole pine ecosystems as a consequence of climate change and/or altered disturbance regimes will likely alter ecosystem water balance.

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