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Small forested watershed weathers effects of climate change better than a nearby urban watershed in Northern Virginia, USA

March 5, 2024

South Fork Quantico Creek (SFQ; 19.8 square kilometre (km2), forested) and Fourmile Run (4MR; 32.4-km2, urban) are small watersheds in northern Virginia, United States. Precipitation and streamflow data for both watersheds were examined from water year (WY) 1952 through 2022. Temporal changes in hydrologic metrics were identified by calculating trends in annual precipitation, annual peak flow, mean daily flow, minimum daily flow, stream flashiness, and the runoff ratio. The impact of climate and urbanization on watershed hydrology was assessed by computing trends on both raw and precipitation-adjusted data. Despite increasing precipitation in both watersheds, increasing monotonic trends in most hydrologic metrics were observed only in 4MR. At 4MR, the long-term trend in annual peak flow was non-linear, thus trends were calculated on separate periods. Annual peak flow increased from WY 1952 through 1968, coinciding with a period of rapid urbanization. During WY 1969 through 1981, annual peak flows decreased, coinciding with construction of a flood channelization project. Trends for both periods were robust to precipitation adjustment. From WY 1982 through 2022, no change in the precipitation-adjusted annual peak flows occurred, suggesting annual peak flows increased due to climate factors during this period. Comparison of area-normalized hydrologic metrics between the two watersheds revealed higher flows in 4MR than SFQ across all flows, not just high flows. Runoff ratio and stream flashiness also were higher in 4MR. Differences in hydrologic metrics between the two watersheds were driven primarily by differences in land use, land cover, and modifications to the water balance related to urbanization. Climate change has altered watershed hydrology at both sites, but extensive urbanization in 4MR has altered the hydrology more than that of SFQ. We conclude that urban watersheds are likely at greater risk of increased flooding than less developed areas as the climate intensifies.

Publication Year 2024
Title Small forested watershed weathers effects of climate change better than a nearby urban watershed in Northern Virginia, USA
DOI 10.1002/hyp.15111
Authors Aaron J. Porter, Karen C Rice
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Hydrological Processes
Index ID 70252474
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization VA/WV Water Science Center